RURAL WABASHA COUNTY — The middle of nowhere is right where I want to be.
On Saturday, I volunteered to take part in the National Eagle Center's 2021 Golden Eagle Survey.
For the 17th year, the NEC has arranged for volunteers to drive around sections of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa looking for golden eagles as part of a study to learn more about the raptors that winter along the hills and valleys of the Driftless Region along the Upper Mississippi River.
Hundreds of volunteers scan the skies and treetops throughout the region looking for that silhouette of one of the big raptors, trying to get close enough to differentiate between golden eagles, bald eagles — juvenile bald eagles, before they get their telltale while plumage, resemble golden eagles to the untrained eye — and the occasional big crow.
We note where we found the bird, and other observations, such as where was the bird when we saw it, and any characteristics that might help determine its age.
An auspicious start
My section of Minnesota roughly covered the townships of Glasgow, Highland, West Albany and Oakwood, with the city of Hammond at one end, the city of Kellogg at the other, and the Zumbro River from Millville to Kellogg running through the middle.
Before arriving at my search region, I spotted an eagle — it flew away too quickly for me to see if it was a juvenile bald eagle or a golden eagle — on the side of Wabasha County Road 11 west of Hammond. Not a half-mile later, I spotted a gang of turkeys, a favorite food of golden eagles.
"When I see turkeys running, I look up, and there's a pretty good chance there’s a golden eagle," said Scott Mehus, director of education at the NEC.
Mehus, who first started the Golden Eagle Survey 17 years ago, finds volunteers for the third Saturday of January each year to help learn more about the species, which winters in the region from roughly November to March before returning to its breeding grounds in Canada each spring and summer.
Unlike bald eagles, golden eagles don't hunt fish, he said. Instead, squirrels, rabbits, small rodents and, yes, wild turkeys, are their favorite foods. Golden eagles like goat prairies, those small hills that have few trees, to sit atop and spot their prey.
Along the river
With my daughter Hailey providing an extra pair of eyes — and a deft hand with the camera — we started along the southern edge of our region, driving from Hammond to Millville. It wasn't long before we spotted three large objects sitting in a tree that overlooked the Zumbro River.
Quickly, I pulled over, turned on my hazards, and we jumped from the car. In that tree was a trio of mature bald eagles. Not the quarry we sought, but worth taking note. Mehus had asked that we record not only golden eagles, but also bald eagles, and, if we felt comfortable identifying such, other raptors we might spot.
We recorded the birds, took photos, and simply watched for a few minutes as our national bird took wing and soared overhead.
A couple of miles later down the road, we saw two more bald eagles flying over a river bluff in the distance.
Catch of the day
Last week, I participated in a video training run by Mehus to teach us new volunteers — or refresh the old pros — on the differences between golden and bald eagles.
One thing Mehus said stuck with me. When talking about how golden eagles are found in the hills and those goat prairies, he said we need to preserve these habitats for them, because the birds don't like living near developments.
To me, that meant finding those roads less traveled. So, when I found 590th Street off Wabasha County Road 74 east of Millville, I thought the little-used street might be a good spot to look.
I was right. At the end of the "Dead End" road, Hailey and I spotted a large bird sitting atop a utility pole and looking over a field of harvested corn. I hit the brakes and turned on the flashers. As we got out, the bird eyed us for about a minute before taking off.
White on the outsides of the underside of its mottled wings, a short head, tail feathers tipped in black: This was our bird.
About 45 minutes later, we spotted a second golden eagle — again, atop a utility pole — on a "Dead End" road.
Joyce and Terry Grier were taking part in their fifth Golden Eagle Survey. A pair of birders who volunteer for the annual Rochester Audubon Bird Count and the Whitewater Bird Count, they've had good years and fruitless years looking for golden eagles.
"The first year was terrible conditions," Joyce Grier said. "It was super foggy, and you couldn’t see 100 feet in front of you."
That was one of two years — 2017 and 2018 — when Mehas said the survey numbers took a big dip.
The couple, along with a pair of friends, spent Saturday driving around the Rollingstone area looking for the birds. Grier said it's important work. Echoing Mehus, she said, knowing where the golden eagles winter tells us a lot how we're impacting the climate and the local environment.
Overall, Mehus said he believes about 75 or so golden eagles live in the Driftless region of Minnesota, another 300-400 likely winter on the Wisconsin side.
All I know is, in section Minnesota-4, there were two golden eagles wintering east of Millville.