Clinton’s skyline marquee is featuring one of America’s greatest wildlife success stories, the winter migration of bald eagles. This national troupe of winged acrobats performs daily along the riverfront. A staging area for each performance is located at Lock and Dam 13.
The sky dancers perform aerial acrobatics and talon clinching cartwheels while soaring along the Mississippi River shoreline. These performances highlight the social interaction between eagles in flight that may be courtship, family bonding or aggression. Two eagles will relentlessly pursue each other when one suddenly flips upside down grasping the talons or prey being held by the other. The entangled eagles spiral downward seemingly out of control, but with the grace of skilled aeronauts, release talons and resume their game of pursuit.
Ice conditions along the Mississippi River determine eagle concentration areas. Fish are a primary food source but river ice-up precludes most fishing opportunities. Eagles then concentrate at the locks and dams where swift currents flowing over the dam not only keep the tailwater open but often stuns or kills fish resulting in a floating sushi buffet. Eagles also patrol pockets of open water where ducks and geese frequent. A slow moving or injured bird will become their next meal.
Eagles are opportunistic feeders and will dine on road-killed critters, fatally wounded but not retrieved deer, and deer gut piles discarded in the field. Ingestion of tiny lead ammunition fragments that are embedded in deer gut piles may result in fatal lead poisoning in bald eagles. Deer hunters are encouraged to use non-lead ammunition, such as copper, that is commercially available for shotguns, muzzleloaders and rifles.
Bald eagles are one of the greatest wildlife success stories in North America. Their population numbered several hundred thousand in the 1800s. Industrialization plunged them to the brink of extinction by mid-1950 with only a few hundred pair remaining. Populations rebounded through protection and restoration programs. After 35 years on the federal endangered species list, their population recovered to a level they were removed from the federal list in 2007.
A live streaming Internet video camera is located at Lock and Dam 13 that provides bald eagle viewing from the comfort of your home. The Stewards of Upper Mississippi River Refuge, Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides the camera at the Stewards website at www.stewardsumrr.org.
Eagle numbers vary daily and may range from a few individuals to several hundred during river ice-up. In January 2014, more than 1,000 bald eagles were counted from the observation deck at the lock. Viewing opportunities are usually better in early morning.
Mark your calendars for the 33rd annual Clinton Bald Eagle Watch to be held Saturday, Jan. 7, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Clinton Community College. Exhibits will be on display and free bus tours are provided from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to Lock and Dam 13 for eagle viewing.
We are fortunate to have the Mississippi River at our front door. Take time to visit the riverfront to view our grand river and the aerial minuets of the sky dancers.
Ed Britton is a Wildlife Refuge Manager on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and volunteer at Bickelhaupt Arboretum.