Prairie du Sac's relationship with eagles is mutually beneficial
A grassroots group has been cultivating interest in bald eagles along the lower Wisconsin River for decades.
Ferry Bluff Eagle Council held its 35th Bald Eagle Watching Days event in Prairie du Sac this month. For as many years, group members have tramped out along the river on cold winter evenings to count eagles as they roost. The information is shared with state and federal agencies and serves as a tool to build conservation, awareness and partnerships.
READ: Why counting bald eagles that winter along the Wisconsin River Matters
As 2022 Eagle Watching Days kicked off, inside Sauk Prairie High School, wildlife educator David Stokes was surrounded by animals — some stuffed, some made of plastic and others were real, like the turtles, fish and a couple of snakes he brought along.
“How tall are bald eagles,” Stokes shouted. Bald Eagle Watching Days always start like this — with children. Traditionally, Stokes would be razzle-dazzling an auditorium full of bused-in students from area grade schools.
Stokes pointed to a life-size eagle perched behind him. “That eagle up there isn’t real, but it looks like an eagle because of its structure. Structure is how an animal is built,” he said.
Instead of engaging with students in person, Stokes played to a camera. It’s “zooming” him live into classrooms, answering students’ questions along the way.
“Do eagles nest all along the Wisconsin River and the Mississippi River or just in certain parts?” said Isaac Homar.
Homar remembers experiencing Stokes when he was a third-grader. Now, the high school senior lobs kids’ questions to Stokes and also helped organize this year’s eagle event.
“It really gave me a glimpse into how I could, after school, and getting older and how people try and make their community better,” Homar said.
The community has joined in. In downtown Prairie du Sac, the village recently built a new eagle-viewing overlook above the Wisconsin River.
That’s where the Andersons, layered against the cold, are on the watch with their 7-year-old and 4-year-old kids. Parents Andrew and Whitney said it was worth the hour-long drive. This is their first Bald Eagle Watching Days experience.
"They’re fun to look at. It’s a fun activity for the kids,” the Andersons said.
Nearby at Wilderness Fish & Game, you will find another sign of community engagement in eagle conservation. One threat the birds face is lead contamination. Over the years, hunters commonly used lead ammunition.
The Ferry Bluff Eagle Council asked the local store to help encourage hunters to shift to copper bullets.
Store buyer Chris Scates explained: "The eagle council came to us and said, 'Hey, we've done a lot of research with this copper ammunition.' And we explained it is more expensive and they said, 'OK, what if we can raise money and we'll just do a voucher for the customer that brings the price down.' It's a cool program. We typically run out of vouchers before season."
A late afternoon walk with Joe Howard encapsulated what makes Ferry Bluff Eagle Council tick. "Look, see the line at the top of the bluff? There is a back spot sort of midway. Here take the binoculars and follow that line. What you're looking at is an eagle's nest," he said.
Every two weeks in the heart of winter, Howard has quietly assumed a strategic spot to count eagles as they soar in to roost for the night. “Bald eagles are communal, they find the same roost and they roost together at night, they don’t get close body wise … they find the best place that’s protected from the wind," he explained.
A seasoned observer traveled light with only binoculars, pencil or pen, data sheets and maps, and enough layers to keep warm. Do not make the mistake of asking Howard how close he’s gotten to an eagle.
“Getting close to eagles is not a goal for me. Getting close to eagles is a disturbance … and that’s in fact one of the things we have a problem with. Ferry Bluff is a very popular hiking place and even though it’s closed now and has signs all over the place, people think it’s just fine to hike up there,” he said.
Howard may not want to disturb the “roosters,” but he does enjoy watching their behavior, for example, when they court. “They fly around and dive at each other, even lock their claws together. They grab a stick, drop it and the other one picks it up,” he said.
Soon, many eagles will scatter north to nest. Some will stay behind.
Howard's notes and those of others throughout the region will be tallied and compared to previous years’ data.
“It’s a way of tracking them, you look at the weather, you look at disturbances, it’s a way of helping you figure out what is it that’s making the eagles make changes, and if it’s disturbances, what is it that we can do to help prevent that,” Howard said.
Howard is talking about us, people. “Yeah us, that’s exactly what I mean,” he said.
As we weaved our way out of the woods, Howard said the count is sort of a spiritual thing for him.
Over the years, Ferry Bluff Eagle Council has helped conserve 268 acres of eagle habitat. It's also provided useful data to the state Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. And it's cultivated community awareness that eagles aren't just fascinating, they're important members of a shared environment.
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