Imagine that you can fly with eagles. Your journey starts in summer at the gateway to the Arctic in Canada’s Hudson Bay where trout are a delicacy. As bay waters freeze in late fall, you wing it over to the Great Lakes to dine on duck cuisine. Your winter destination on the Mississippi River at Clinton provides an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet in the tailwaters of Lock and Dam 13. Flying with eagles is a dream but today’s technology provides the opportunity to follow eagles on their incredible journey.
The revival of bald eagles is one of America’s greatest wildlife success stories. Half a million bald eagles thrived in the lower 48 states during the late 1800s but were reduced to a few hundred pairs by 1965. Laws for protection and programs for conservation brought them back from the brink of extinction. Their numbers are now in the tens of thousands.
Clinton is located in the heart of bald eagle country with typically over 1,000 eagles wintering within a 50-mile radius, especially within the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. Several pairs of eagles nest and reside here. You’ll often see eagles flying over the Wild Rose Casino and Wal-Mart.
An eagle’s journey in America’s Heartland is a dangerous one. They suffer from disease, are shot and trapped. The growing demand for electricity has invigorated the wind energy industry with giant wind turbines dotting the landscape. Bald eagle mortality associated with collisions at wind energy facilities, transmission lines and other energy infrastructure is increasing. Last month, large orange balls were attached to the Beaver Island transmission lines for bird diverters to reduce eagle collisions.
In order to address a growing concern for the increased occurrence of eagle mortality at wind energy structures, a study was initiated in 2014 to map the flight patterns of bald eagles. If specific flight patterns by a large number of eagles could be identified, then the strategic future placement of electricity generating infrastructure could minimize eagle mortality.
Sara Schmuecker, a graduate student at Western Illinois University and researcher with the Ecological Services Division of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is living the virtual reality of flying with eagles. She is completing her master’s degree thesis on bald eagle movements.
Sara and crew capture eagles in the Quad-City area at bait sites using fish and road-killed deer. The fish have nylon slip knots tied to their body, when an eagle grabs the floating fish its talons are entangled. Deer carcasses are placed in a field and a rocket-net shoots over the eagle as it dines on venison steak. A goal of 40 eagles is anticipated, with 13 eagles currently being tracked.
A tiny GPS telemetry unit is attached to each eagle. Signals are transmitted to cellular towers that record location, altitude and speed. Life expectancy of each solar powered telemetry unit is three years.
Flight paths vary among eagles that are long distance fliers and travel hundreds of miles. Fish are an eagle’s main diet so rivers and lakes are the most visited areas. Inland ventures are frequent, especially when moving between waters or when ice covers open water areas.
Bald eagle numbers in the Clinton area are lower than normal this year due to the mild winter. The Mississippi River is only partially frozen so eagles are dispersed over a larger area. Take the time to visit the river front and imagine that you can fly with eagles.
Ed Britton is a wildlife refuge manager on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and volunteer at Bickelhaupt Arboretum.