By Heather Thorstensen
HENDERSON, Minn. — The eagles have landed in Henderson.
"Right now, the eagles and water birds are coming in," said Dolores Hagen said. She is director of Henderson Feathers, a birding information center for the Minnesota River Valley.
Established in 2007, the center offers free trail maps and information about where to spot birds in the area. It also runs nature programs for adults and children. Temporarily based at a building Hagen owns, the center is financially supported by the Henderson Chamber of Commerce.
An army of volunteers provides birding information to the center. They also post pictures, videos and messages about their sightings on the Henderson Feathers Web page at www.Hendersonmn.com.
The site also has birding maps and a list of birds that come to the area.
Bald eagles begin to arrive here around March 10 and will be gone by about April 10 as they continue to migrate, said retired teacher and Henderson Feathers volunteer Art Straub. Whenever there are a dozen or more eagles spotted, Hagen sends out e-mail notifications, called Eagle Alerts, to a list of 116 people who have signed up to receive them.
The eagle population here has increased over the years as the birds’ overall population grows. Straub said the most eagles seen in the area was two years ago, when 72 were spotted at one time.
Bald eagles were removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2007. According to the ruling, the eagle population was pegged at 487 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states in 1963. Now, there number has increased to an estimated 9,789 breeding pairs. The National Audubon Society says eagles were disappearing due to shooting, loss of habitat and the use of pesticides, such as DDT. The bird population recovered thanks to government protection and a DDT ban put in place in the 1970s.
According to Hagen, eagles come to Henderson because it’s one of the best feeding grounds of the Minnesota River Valley as the birds follow the river during migration.
"We are sitting here in the middle of flyways," she said.
People who come to Henderson Feathers hoping to learn of prime eagle viewing spots will likely be directed to nearby Buck’s Lake off Minnesota Highway 93 south of Henderson, on the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway.
The lake is shallow and oxygen depletion in the frozen water causes fish to die, said Hagen. Eagles feed on the dead fish in the ice, she said. They also eat fish attracted to a spring at the lake’s south end. The birds are spotted most often when they tend to feed — morning and late afternoon — depending on the weather and other factors. Pull-off areas for cars along the highway allow visitors to get close to the lake without a hike.
"You can be three of 103 and be able to stop at the edge of the lake and see action," said Straub.
The area didn’t have any eagle nests until Christmas Day 11 years ago, he said. There are now five nests of bald eagles that stay year-round. The nests’ locations are displayed on a map at Henderson Feathers and it’s been confirmed that at least four nests are active this year. One is in a privately-owned area, but the center has an agreement with the landowner, Cemstone, for tours.
Other birds are popular in the area, including warblers, blue herons, bluebirds and a very special pair of Canada geese. Straub said the geese may be considered "sky rats" in Rochester, where they’re so common they’ve earned a spot on the city seal, but in Henderson, a pair known as Illsa and Isadore — Izzy for short — are welcomed back every year. The geese arrived last week.
"Everybody rejoices that the geese are back," he said.
Henderson Feathers is giving visitors free seed packets to grow a hummingbird garden as part of the Henderson Hummingbird Hurrah, a celebration of the ruby-throated hummingbird. Activities are planned to lead up to the Big Hurrah Weekend, Aug. 28-30, when hummingbirds will be banded for research.
In summer, Hagen, Straub and his wife, Barbara, run a 13-week youth nature walk program, Nature’s Neighbors, with assistance through the center so kids get outside and learn about the wildlife in their own backyard. Their motto is "No Child Left Inside," said Straub. He and Barbara also hold a license to own deceased birds, and travel to schools, nursing homes and other places for educational programs.
Henderson buildings will display a photography exhibition of birds in the Minnesota River Valley May 15 through June 28. Henderson Feathers volunteers also participate in annual bird counts in December and February.