December 29, 2006

Mild Weather Sends Bald Eagles Inland

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Bald eagle watchers will have to keep their eyes on inland areas as well as rivers to catch soaring displays of the majestic bird.

State wildlife officials say many eagles remain near inland waterways because of the mild weather. Normally, Iowa's cold, icy winters drive the birds to rivers to forage for food when inland waters freeze over.

"Typically, most of these lakes would be frozen, but these guys are really catching fish right now ... so that allows for the birds to be spread out," said Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Bruce Ehresman.

The tailwater areas of the Mississippi River and ripples on other rivers are usually the only open water in Iowa at this time of year, and are often swarming with the national symbol.

"Bald eagles are not going to concentrate on these areas until it is the only place they can get food," Ehresman said, adding that some bald eagles also are staying in their nesting areas farther north because of mild winter weather.

Hosting thousands of bald eagles in Iowa is a what some environmentalists call a conservation miracle. That's because the species was nearly wiped out of the continental United States because of overuse of pesticides and loss of habitat after World War II.

"There's been a huge expansion in eagle breeding all over the place ... and some of it has just been natural expansion," said Bob Barry, a wildlife biologist with the Desoto National Wildlife Refuge in western Iowa. He said the birds remain on the nation's threatened list.

Ehresman said winter bald eagle counts used to tally just a few hundred. By January 2004, their numbers reached 4,400 in Iowa. The number of eagles that nest in the Midwest state also has skyrocketed, he said.

Over the next few weeks, wildlife biologists and conservationists will be conducting a rough bald eagle population count. The North American Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey is conducted each January. Volunteers help tally eagles in designated survey routes, following some inland streams as well as bigger rivers.

In Iowa, Ehresman said 60 percent will be counted along the Mississippi River and another 20 percent along the Des Moines River. Smaller numbers are tallied along other open streams. This year, he thinks, the tally may fall to around 2,500.

"But if the weather changes, and we go into a really cold spell, and all of these lakes and even some of the rivers freeze up ... then their numbers will escalate," he said. "They just aren't going to be visible in big numbers until things freeze up."

Barry said he spotted about 10 bald eagles the other day. Tallies at the refuge along the Missouri River have reached as high as into the 90s on some days in past years.

"It's really variable," he said. "It depends on different factors, one primarily is their food source."

Bald eagles have often followed snow geese into the area, but as the waterfowl have neglected to stop at the refuge over the past few years, many of the bald eagles have passed it up as well.

"Wherever you get huge concentrations of waterfowl, you get eagles hanging around," he said.

To extend educational efforts in Iowa, officials will hold Bald Eagle Appreciation Days across the state next month.


On the Net:

Iowa Department of Natural Resources: http://www.iowadnr.com/

Desoto National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/midwest/desoto/