December 2 was the first day of counting the bald eagles in this area by volunteers from the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council (FBEC). Volunteers do this counting throughout the winter for research purposes and more general eagle information. Volunteers spend a couple hours every other Sunday at 10 different eagle roosting sites in and around the Sauk Prairie area and the Wisconsin River. These roosting sites have been used by bald eagles for decades and include sites from the Prairie du Sac Dam to Spring Green. There are also some locations where counting is done that is miles away from the river like the Leland site. The other eagle counting locations are at; Sugar Loaf, Blackhawk, Ferry Bluff, Fox, McDonald, Jone’s Slough, Lone rock, Big hollow, Ederer/Been, and Leland. There are usually two to four volunteers at each site to help with the counting especially later in the winter when eagle numbers are at there peak. As the winter gets colder and all lakes and ponds freeze over, the only open water is the Wisconsin River and bald eagles will concentrate in locations close to the river and their much needed food supply. The main food for eagles is fish and that is why so many eagles winter in the Sauk Prairie area which supplies them with most of their winter needs of food, large trees for roosting, and wooded valleys that protect them from the cold and snow of winter.
The FBEC did much needed research in the early and mid 2000’s which has helped the council, DNR, and people in general learn more about the symbol of America, the bald eagle. The Council’s Habitat Committee is the busiest group in the FBEC doing the winter eagle counts, giving educational talks and seminars to interested groups, and working with land use issues as they arise with landowners, local governments, and other groups. The research done has helped this area to continue being a favorite location and crucial area for bald eagles to reside during winter. The eagles that winter here come from northern Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and parts of Canada. Besides, the reasons that I’ve mentioned for eagles coming here to winter, by far the most important reason is that the Wisconsin River stays open near the dam and for miles below which allow the eagles to fish without traveling very far. During the winter, eagles have to maintain there energy for survival from the cold. Bald eagles must conserve their energy for feeding food and this is why it is so important for eagle- watchers to stay in their vehicles and not scare the eagles off their roosting trees. This is why you see signs in the viewing areas telling you to watch and photograph from your cars!
“The Ferry Bluff Eagle Council is a local grassroots organization working to protect, enhance, and maintain Bald Eagle habitat in the Sauk Prairie area through education, research, and management activities. The Council works with schools, area residents, and the community to keep the eagles returning every winter. We feel privileged to share the river valley with these magnificent birds and want to make sure that they are here for future generations.” This is the overall feeling of this great conservation group that has done so much to help and promote the Sauk Prairie area and its wonderful population of eagles that have chosen to winter here for many years since their great comeback from near extinction in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I feel lucky and privileged to have been able to help this group in a small way by helping count eagles, working at Bald Eagle Watching Days in January, and writing articles to keep the area residents and the general public aware of this wonderful resource that we are so lucky to have here for a few months a year.
The past week, I’ve been seeing bald eagles in the area close to my home on the Wisconsin River, perching over Black Earth Creek, and off Highway 12 eating a dead deer. These are the first eagles that I’ve seen in some time and a few friends have also seen eagles in the past week. There are a few bald eagles that have nested and live here year-round. But, this is only a few eagle pairs that stay throughout the year. The last few days of the Wisconsin Gun Deer season there was colder weather and snow in northern Wisconsin and Michigan which could account for some eagles migrating south to this area. The southern migration of bald eagles is totally dependent on the weather. As I said earlier, the main food of eagles is fish and eagles need open water for fishing. The lakes of northern Wisconsin and Michigan are starting to freeze over for the winter and as they do bald eagles will move to areas like the Mississippi River and Wisconsin River where the flowing water stay open all winter allowing the eagles to feed on the high protein, gizzard shad and other assorted fish.
Sunday, I met my counting partner the last few years, retired UW Professor Timothy Moermond. Tim was a Zoology and Environmental Studies professor and is an expert on birds and eagles. Tim is now going to China a couple times a year teaching classes and helping the Chinese do research. I feel privileged to work with such an intelligent and down to earth man who teaches me something every time that I spend a Sunday afternoons counting bald eagles with him. He amazes me with his knowledge of the many species of birds and animals that reside here and around the world.
But, this first Sunday of counting eagles was not going to be a good one. The warm temperatures and snowless ground in most of the state hasn’t forced the eagles to start their migration. Or, there are some eagles that have moved south, but they are spread out over such a large area that you rarely see them till the lakes and streams freeze over leaving only the Wisconsin River as the only body of open water in the area. Residents of Madison and surrounding towns have reported seeing some bald eagles near the Madison Chain of Lakes. This is possible because none of the local lakes are frozen and it looks like it will be at least another week or more before the waters in the south are frozen over. So, it’s possible to see bald eagles anywhere you find open water and trees to roost in. Tim and I spent a couple of hours scanning the skies for roosting eagles and about all we saw were crows and hawks. But, this can change over night with the coming off cold and snow. Snow also helps to concentrate the eagles in a smaller area closer to the Wisconsin River. I haven’t gotten the reports from the other counting stations, but I’m sure the numbers will be low till we get cold and some snow to cover the ground. The next counting day is December 16 and who knows what the weather will be like then? Usually, there are a good number of eagles near the Prairie Dam by Christmas, if the weather is normal for this time of year.
It won’t be long till it’s Bald Eagle Days in Sauk Prairie which is one of the winter’s highlights. This year, the Bald Eagle Days are January 18-19, 2013. This is a great weekend for the entire family to come and view these great birds. There’s something for all this “Eagle” weekend! Try to come and enjoy the true beauty of nature and the outdoors while viewing the bald eagle. I’ll keep you informed on the coming of the eagles and mark Bald Eagle Days on your calendars.
dnr.wi.gov for more information of the eagle.