Weiss: Where have all the eagles gone? Unusual winter has made them nomads
Most years in the spring, hundreds of bald eagles can be spotted along the Mississippi River near Wabasha. This year, they're tough to spot. Here's why.
READS LANDING — Dan Scheffler drove his family to the U.S. 61 Mississippi overlook at Reads Landing Sunday from Northfield, expecting they would be transfixed with the spectacle of scores of migrating bald eagles soaring, loafing, feeding, being majestic lords of the sky.
They saw two or three.
He was surprised.
“We come every year,” he said. “We came one year and every one of those trees (across the river) it seems was dotted with eagles.” He took the lack of birds in stride. They did get to see a glorious river, swans and ducks. And he, his wife and two children did see one eagle nearby in a tree.
He wasn’t the only puzzled person. Scott Mehus hears that a lot. “Join the club, where are the eagles?” is what he hears, said the education director at the National Eagle Center along the river in Wabasha. Even for him, who has figured out what happened, “it still feels so weird.”
He could get that question a lot at the annual Soar with the Eagles this weekend at the center.
The answer is that eagles haven’t gone AWOL and are continuing their remarkable recovery after nearly being wiped out by DDT several decades ago. They just aren’t in traditional places this spring. They have become “nomads,” Mehus said and to see them, eagle watchers have to wander around a bit more.
It has everything to do with the mystery and mystique of migration. Why birds migrate is partially known but not completely. It can be a real guessing game at which birds will show up when. While eagles aren’t being seen in the usual numbers in the usual place, this spring has had some fantastic surprises for birders seeing other species, he said.
It also has a lot to do with a favorite eagle food — gizzard shad — having a bad year.
Here’s what happened:
Normally, bald eagles come south from northern nesting areas in late fall and meet the many eagles that live here. Then much of the river, including Lake Pepin, a natural reservoir of the Mississippi from south of Red Wing to north of Wabasha, gets iced over and many eagles go farther south. But some stay around the Wabasha area because once water from Pepin again becomes a river, current increases and there is normally a lot of open water where eagles can feed. Some also stay around open water in Colvill Park in Red Wing or below some locks-and-dams.
In spring, the reverse happens as eagles come north and congregate around Reads Landing, which is just north of Wabasha, where the Schefflers hoped to see them. At times, at least 300 or more eagles have been counted on the fringe of Pepin’s ice. Dead fish, especially the shad that die in winter, tend to be pushed under the ice until they pop up into open water at the base of the lake; eagles eat them up.
Last fall, things were looking normal, Mehus said. He counted 150 on the ice or in trees along a river backwater across from Wabasha last fall, and maybe 150 more several miles south. “It was phenomenal,” he said.
Then came the mid-December blizzard. In Rochester, temperatures were 20 to nearly 30 degrees below normal. Just before the storm, he counted maybe 100 eagles below the Alma, Wis., lock and dam. “The birds felt something,” he said. “There are all different theories about what is going on with those birds. Somehow they sense it.” Maybe they feel sound well below human hearing and that tells them to leave. After that blizzard, he counted five eagles at Alma.
Our loss was the gain of Alton, Ill. “They were seeing well over 1,000 bald eagles one day,” he said.
Also, he said the big count of golden eagles in mid-January, which Mehus started and keeps going, found nearly a record number of bald eagles.
What probably happened was the eagles that were along the river couldn’t find food, especially the gizzard shad.
“We saw very few shad being consumed along the river this winter,” he said. To find food, bald eagles went deeper into the bluff country, where goldens live in winter, and fed on dead deer and other carcasses, he said.
As spring approached up here, many eagles, especially juveniles, stayed down there, Mehus said. Then the Mississippi began to open up in more places around here so birds that came up have many more places to feed and loaf but again had to spread out more because of fewer shad. Many local eagles are now nesting; one is usually on the nest while the other feeds, so they aren’t as noticeable, he said.
Right now, about 50 pairs are nesting on both sides of the river from Pepin, Wis., to Alma. Also, he counted 50 to 75 eagles on the ice out from Lake City that is between Red Wing and Wabasha.
So the eagles are still around and doing quite well, though Mehus added that he’s still worried about other factors that might be threatening them.
He isn’t overly surprised that things aren’t normal because uncertainty is normal for migration. “Just when you start to think you know what’s happening, another variable gets through in there,” he said. “That’s what makes it fascinating.”
And here’s the flip side to people not seeing many eagles: people are seeing a lot more other species, he said. “It’s that magical time of the year,” he said.
While the Scheffler family didn’t see eagles, using binoculars, they could see several thousand migrating bluebills, canvasbacks and other ducks along with swans and mergansers on the Wisconsin side. Mehus counted about 2,000 migrating tundra swans on the river backwater across from Wabasha. They’ve been around for a while and that is unusual. In fall, swans are in no hurry to get south so they stick around for a month or more. In spring, they are rushing to get back to arctic breeding grounds. This year, they are staying.
He was stunned recently when he stood outside the eagle center and heard sandhill cranes that are becoming more common. When he looked up, however, he saw three whooping cranes mixed in with the other cranes; the whooping cranes were the first he’s ever seen in Minnesota. “That made my day and week,” he said.
And another observer reported a flock of snow geese just south of Wabasha — again, an uncommon sight around here, he said.
Just how uncertain migration can be, and its effect on other places, showed up in 2021 when the bluebirds that are around in in summer were in Arkansas and Missouri where they migrate to avoid our winters.. “There was an ice storm down there (in mid-February) and they got whacked,” said Mike Jeresek of Rushford, who keeps track of the birds and their nesting success in Houston and Fillmore counties. The storm coated trees with up to a quarter-inch of ice that didn’t melt for more than a week. Many bluebirds starved.
It showed up in much lower nesting success when the survivors migrated to Minnesota. The year before, 13,844 were reported fledged up here; the next spring, that crashed to 7,269. Some people never saw a bluebird. The good news is that last year, that number rose to 9,101, he said.
What the rest of the year’s migration has to offer birders is anyone’s guess. Maybe next spring the Schefflers will again see bald eagles dotting trees.