MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Where eagles land

Near winter gathering spots, towns capitalize on the birds' popularity by throwing festivals.

An eagle looks for fish at the lock and dam in Genoa, Wis.

Beth Gauper

On the Mississippi, an eagle trolls for fish in the waters below the dam in Genoa, Wis.

Benjamin Franklin was a wise man, but he was way off base when he proposed the turkey as a national symbol instead of the eagle.

Why? Because bald eagles are the perfect Americans. They're large, brash, opportunistic and easy to identify. And wherever they go, money follows.

Not long after the pesticide DDT was banned in 1972, bald eagle populations began to bounce back in the lower 48 states.

Eagles were hard to spot in the summer, when they spread out over the north woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin, but in the winter, they'd gather to fish in the open water beneath dams or at the mouths of large rivers.

As their numbers grew, the eagles became a tourist attraction. People came from all over to watch them in action, soaring and diving, snatching fish spotted from a mile away, either in the river or in the talons of another bird.

Eagles don't really have lovable personalities. They gather not because they're social but because they're habitual thieves and think they might find something to steal, a behavior biologists call kleptoparasitism.

Eagles hate to share space, often chasing other eagles from their perches. And they love to eat dead things along roads, which often causes them to swoop in front of cars and suffer an early demise.

But, man, are bald eagles fun to watch.

Those haughty pale eyes, that 6-foot wing span, those wicked talons and the flesh-shredding beak — eagles are just plain cool.

Everything about them is larger than life, right down to their nests, which are so big and sturdy bears sometimes climb into them to hibernate.

To watch an eagle wheeling and dipping through the air is treat enough. But the chance to see an airborne food fight or the tandem plummet of mating eagles brings tourists back again and again.

In the 1980s, some of the riverside towns where eagles gathered began to promote them, putting spotting scopes on observation decks and holding eagle-watching weekends.

It turned out to be a huge economic boon for such places as Prairie du Sac and Sauk City, adjoining towns on the Wisconsin River near Baraboo.

Hundreds of eagles spend the winter there, roosting in deep valleys nearby and fishing below a hydroelectric plant, whose turbines stun fish and make them easy pickings.

In 2005, a study showed that during the six weeks of peak eagle season, 50,000 tourists bring $1.2 million into the towns, known collectively as Sauk Prairie.

"For a community of 5,000, that's a lot of money," says Rich Van, a longtime member of the area's Ferry Bluff Eagle Council.

A bald eagle sits in a tree.

Beth Gauper

An eagle surveys a river in Wisconsin.

"It used to be Sauk Prairie in the winter was just dead; they'd roll up the sidewalks. Now, it's a bustling place year-round. It's really changed the dynamic of the community."

In Minnesota, Wabasha was first to capitalize on the eagles, which congregate at the ice-free spot where the Chippewa River surges into the Mississippi.

First, it built an observation deck downtown and staffed it with volunteers on winter weekends. Festivals were started. An eagle center set up shop in the visitors center, then acquired a storefront of its own.

Now, the National Eagle Center has its own brand-new building downtown, featuring a golden eagle and four bald eagles that were injured and are unable to survive in the wild.

"People have always known Wabasha is a good place to see eagles," says MaryBeth Garrigan, the center's programming director. "Families, especially those with kids, love to come here. We call it a beak experience — you're within 5 feet, so you can't miss it."

Towns all along the Mississippi — Red Wing, Minn.; Prairie du Chien and Cassville, Wis.; Dubuque, Clinton and Keokuk in Iowa — also have signed onto the eagle express, sponsoring annual eagle-watching weekends.

As bird populations have increased, it's no longer uncommon to spot an eagle, but that has only increased the number of tourists who want to do so.

"There are still a lot of people who have never seen an eagle, and they're just thrilled to see them," says Pat Manthey, avian ecologist for Wisconsin's DNR in La Crosse.

Manthey, who says she expects the annual eagle survey to find about 1,000 nesting pairs in Wisconsin, gives presentations at many eagle festivals. "We're still getting huge crowds of people, and it's growing," she says.

In Sauk Prairie, says Rich Van, surveys at eagle overlooks show 80 percent of the visitors are repeat visitors.

"What really happens is that only about 10 percent of people come for the Eagle Days," he says. "After that, they come explicitly not on the eagle weekend, so they don't have the crowds and they can watch the birds in a quieter environment."

In Sauk Prairie, the eagles are so close the town has to post signs asking visitors to watch from their cars and not slam doors; the eagles are easily frightened and may return to their evening roosts with empty stomachs, wasting the energy they need to survive severe cold.

Of course, people still do slam doors and get out of cars, emboldened by the eagles' proximity.

"People are standing there, and an eagle flies into the tree right overhead," Van says. "It's the bird's choice, and if you approach the tree, the eagle will fly at 100 feet. But people get the false idea they're not wary."

Eagles may tolerate people in winter because they need to eat, Manthey says, not because they like them. But that doesn't stop tourists from following them wherever they go.

The National Eagle Center in Wabasha.

Beth Gauper

The National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn., is right on the Mississippi River.

"For some people, it's a mecca, an annual mecca to see the eagles," Garrigan says. "It's a phenomenon." 

Below are eagle-watching events along the Upper Mississippi in 2014.

For tips on finding the birds yourself, see Looking for bald eagles.

For more about winter eagle-watching, see Open sesame on the sloughs.

For more Wabasha and Reads Landing, Minn., where many wintering eagles congregate, and the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, which has five resident eagles, see All eyes on Wabasha.

Trip Tips: Eagle-watching festivals and tours

Jan. 4, Bald Eagle Watch in Clinton, Iowa. It features live-eagle and nature programs at Clinton Community College and free bus service to Lock & Dam 13 in Fulton, Ill.

Jan. 4, Bald Eagle Viewing Field Trip from Wabasha, Minn. The National Eagle Centers hosts a four-hour motorcoach tour to viewing locations, $35.

Jan. 4-5, Eagle-Watch/Clock Tower Tours of the Mississippi River Visitors Center in Rock Island, Ill. The center is on Lock & Dam 15. To reserve one of the free tours, 9-10:30 a.m. or 12:30-2 p.m., call 309-794-5338.

Jan. 10-12, Bald Eagle Days in Rock Island, Ill. At the Quad Cities Conservation Alliance Expo Center, there's an environmental fair, with flying demonstrations by eagles, hawks and owls and many other events. Admission. 

Jan. 11 to March 9, Bald Eagle Viewing Van Tours from Ingersoll Wetlands Learning Center in Thomson, Ill., on the Mississippi River just south of Savanna.

Tours will be given Jan. 11, 18 and 25, Feb. 7-8, 16 and 21 and March 2 and 9. Destinations vary. They're free, but space is limited, so call 815-273-2732 to reserve a spot. Sponsored by Stewards of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge.

Jan. 11 and Feb. 8 and 22, Bald Eagle Bus Tours from Galena, Ill. The four-hour tours are hosted by the Eagle Nature Foundation, $70, $50 for children under 17 ($65-$45 if bought by Dec. 31).

The tours visit five eagle communities between Dubuque and Green Island, just south of Bellevue and typically see between 30 and 350 eagles.

Jan. 17-18, Bald Eagle Watching Days in Prairie du Sac, Wis. It features guided bus tours, Eagles in Wisconsin and Birds of Prey programs and a radio-tracking demonstration. 

At 10 a.m. Saturdays from Jan. 4 to Feb. 15, the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council hosts eagle-watching bus tours, $5. To reserve, call 800-683-2453.

Jan. 18, Bald Eagle Watch in Dubuque, Iowa.  Live-eagle programs and free trolley rides from the Grand River Center downtown to the National Mississippi River Museum and Lock & Dam 11.

Jan. 18-19, Bald Eagle Appreciation Days in Keokuk, Iowa. There's live-eagle presentations, Native American activities, demonstrations and viewing on the river.

Jan. 25-26, Eagle-Watch/Clock Tower Tours of the Mississippi River Visitors Center in Rock Island, Ill. The center is on Lock & Dam 15. To reserve one of the free tours, 9-10:30 a.m. or 12:30-2 p.m., call 309-794-5338.

Jan. 25, Golden Eagle Viewing Field Trip from Wabasha, Minn. The National Eagle Center hosts a four-hour motorcoach tour to viewing locations, $35.

Jan. 25, Bald Eagle Watch in Muscatine, Iowa. Live-eagle programs and environmental exhibits are at Pearl City Station in Riverside Park and outdoor viewing there and at Lock & Dam 16.

Jan. 25-26, Eagle Watch Weekend around Utica, Ill. The Illinois Audubon Society sponsors activities at Starved Rock Lodge, the Starved Rock State Park visitors center and, across the river, the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center.

Trolleys connect the three venues. For more about the area, see Marvels of Starved Rock.

Jan. 25-26, Bald Eagle Days in Cassville, Wis. There are raptor programs throughout the day. In the morning, volunteers man spotting scopes in Riverside Park.

Feb. 1-2, Eagle-Watch/Clock Tower Tours of the Mississippi River Visitors Center in Rock Island, Ill. The center is on Lock & Dam 15. To reserve one of the free tours, 9-10:30 a.m. or 12:30-2 p.m., call 309-794-5338.

Feb. 8-9, Eagle-Watch/Clock Tower Tours of the Mississippi River Visitors Center in Rock Island, Ill. The center is on Lock & Dam 15. To reserve one of the free tours, 9-10:30 a.m. or 12:30-2 p.m., call 309-794-5338.

Feb. 8, Golden Eagle Viewing Field Trip from Wabasha, Minn. The National Eagle Center hosts a four-hour motorcoach tour to viewing locations, $35.

Feb. 21-22, Bald Eagle Appreciation Days in Prairie du Chien, Wis., and Effigy Mounds National Monument near Marquette, Iowa. Birding experts give programs and lead mini field trips, depending on weather. 

Feb. 23, Bald Eagle Viewing Field Trip from Wabasha, Minn. The National Eagle Centers hosts a four-hour motorcoach tour to viewing locations, $35.

March 1, Bald Eagle Watching Day in Ferryville, Wis. There are live-eagle programs at the community center and watching from River Park Observation Deck on the Mississippi in this town between La Crosse and Prairie du Chien.

March 1-2, 8-9, 15-16 and 22-23, Soar With the Eagles festival in Wabasha, Minn. The National Eagle Center hosts special events, programs and speakers during spring migrations. Taste of Wabasha is March 29.

The center, which has five resident eagles, is open year-round, with special programs at 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. Admission is $8, $5 for children 4-17.




Last updated on December 19, 2013
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