Friday, January 7, 2011

The Best Place to See Bald Eagles: Alma, Wisconsin

Where's the best place to watch Bald Eagles on the Upper Mississippi River?

Last year, I would have said:  Read's Landing in Minnesota.  Sure, there are other places along the Mississippi River in Minnesota where you can get those iconic views of a dozen or more "eagles in a tree," but the highway overlooks between Lake City and Read's Landing are among the best.  Bring binoculars and dress for bone-chilling cold weather.

Ask me where to go this year, and I'll tell you:  The best place to see bald eagles is Alma, Wisconsin.

View from the indoor viewing area at Wings Over Alma (sans binoculars)

It's reliable:  you'll see dozens of eagles - flying, "surfing" (riding the ice flows), sitting like penguins on the ice and decorating the cottonwood trees along the river.

It's hassle-free:  you don't have to worry about pulling off the road, parking or traffic.

It's comfortable:  you're inside a heated building with great views of the eagle action on the river with an eagle "naturalist-guide-spotter" who provides the optical equipment and points them out to you.

And it's all free - no admission charge.  (They won't turn down a donation, if you want to make one.)

Where is this place?

Wings Over Alma Nature and Art Center - a little storefront at 118 North Main Street (in downtown Alma).

Before you head out the door, here's a few tips on where to look, when to go and how to behave....

Where to look:
Eagles go where the food is.   Bald Eagles feed on fish and carrion (dead animals).  
Look for them perched in trees near open water:  near power plants and the locks and dams along the Upper Mississippi River.
Look for them down-river from dams and “lock and dam” infrastructure where the fishing is easy.  Passage through dams is perilous for fish.  Many are killed and/or stunned, making the fish catching relatively effortless for eagles.
Look for them down river from power plants where cooling water is released back in to the river.  This warmer water – low in oxygen - causes fish kills.
Look for them strafing the surface of the water, grabbing fish and vulnerable (sick, starving or injured) waterfowl.
Our national symbol is not above feasting on dead animals.  Don’t be surprised to see them near roads – where they feed on roadkill – as big as deer, raccoons and as small as turtles and frogs.
Look for Golden Eagles back in the coulees and farm fields, where they hunt of the fly - rabbits, rodents and larger birds.    They’ll also feed on roadkill.  Last year, Buffalo County, Wisconsin had the highest concentration of Golden Eagles in the annual “Winter Golden Eagle Survey.”
If you want to go “eagle-watching,” but don’t want to deal with the cold and the traffic – head over to Wings Over Alma Nature and Art Center in Alma, Wisconsin.  You can watch eagles and waterfowl – up close – from the comfort of their indoor, heated birdwatching deck.   And they provide spotting scopes, binoculars and naturalists to show you where to look.  
Best Time:    
The best time to spot eagles this time of year is between 9am and 2pm.   
Winter is a very difficult time for all wildlife.    If you go out to look for eagles (and other wildlife), resist the temptation to get out of your car for a closer look.    Eagle inactivity is an important survival strategy when food is relatively scarce and weather is severe.  Seemingly benign human behaviors (walking too close, closing your car door, etc) can push an already stressed bird over the edge.   So…   
     1.  Stay in your car.  Don't approach eagles closer than a quarter mile. Avoid roosting areas.  
     2.  Don’t make noise to get a better photo: no honking horns, door slamming, radios playing, yelling, etc.     
     3.  Don’t let your dog out of the car.  Better yet, leave your dog at home.  
     4.  Bring binoculars or spotting scopes to get a better view.  
     5.  Be careful driving.  Don’t abruptly stop and pull off the road.   Watch where you are in relation to other vehicles.   
     6.  Don’t trespass.  Respect private property and avoid restricted areas.   
Be CAREFUL - and dress for the cold!

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