Midwinter Bald Eagle Counts

Midwinter Bald Eagle Counts

Jan 30, 2015

With ‘real’ winter closing in on Iowa now, bald eagles are in line, for state and continent-wide attention. Between now and mid-January, biologists and other conservationists will spread out over survey routes; for a midwinter head count.

Their story is pretty well documented through the last half dozen decades. Through the mid-20th Century, eagles feeding on fish and other animals with the dangerous chemical DDT in their systems, ingested it themselves. Egg shells thinned dangerously, driving down successful hatch of offspring. The environmental crisis led to a DDT ban and federal legislation protecting eagles and their habitat. “They were listed as a federally endangered species”, underscores DNR wildlife diversity biologist Stephanie Shepherd. “Although de-listed in 2007, we still monitor eagles; to ensure nesting populations and overall numbers are doing well.”

The North American Mid-winter Eagle Survey is especially important in Iowa; one of the more important wintering states. In the 1970s, Iowa’s winter eagle count was in the dozens. Now, in an extra cold winter, you can see that many below about any Mississippi River lock and dam along the Mississippi River. At Keokuk and a couple other ‘hot spots’, it arcs into the hundreds. Last January, record cold, ice and snow cover concentrated the regal raptors into what little open water remained. That made them easy to spot. “As a result, we had almost 5000 eagles, 500 more than just five years prior”, recounts Shepherd.

This year, don’t expect another bulge like that. Our relatively mild conditions this season have spread the big birds across the landscape. On the other hand, it is more likely to see one or two eagles miles from their favorite winter haunt…rather than multiple birds near what little open water remains during a snowy, bitter cold winter.

Still, savvy eagle watchers will focus on the water. Open pools below a river dam are the best places to start. The Mississippi River lock and dam system is a bald eagle magnet…with several communities taking advantage of the cold weather tourism to host bald eagle appreciation celebrations. Likewise, several ‘eagle days’ are held along interior streams; such as the Des Moines and Iowa Rivers. Check the DNR website, or call a community’s Visitor’s Bureau for a potential late-January to early March date and location.

Otherwise, pack a spotting scope or binoculars and keep your eyes on the sky. The colder the weather, the better your chance of spying on the regal raptor.