Bird watchers look to Iowa skies for bald eagles

DES MOINES – Bird watching enthusiasts around Iowa are looking to the skies this weekend for sightings of thousands of bald eagles known to travel through the state each winter.

Wildlife workers and volunteers will count and report bird sightings around the country Saturday and Sunday as part of the Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey. It’s an event coordinated annually by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources said there were more than 3,000 eagle sightings in the state last year. Counting the birds is an annual activity embraced by several communities up and down the Mississippi River.

Stephanie Shepherd, an agency wildlife diversity biologist, said in a statement that the eagles are being spotted in other places besides stronghold spots along the Mississippi River. The key for the birds is open water, and they can find it along other waterways, such as the Des Moines River, which had high counts in 2010 and 2011.

“We are coming up with some interesting patterns here in Iowa,” she said. “Iowa is a terrific place for winter eagle watching. We generally have the best concentrations along our bigger waterways, in areas where water is open.”

Bald Eagle Days in Iowa are scheduled throughout January and February in places like Keokuk in the southeast part of the state, and Saylorville near Des Moines. The viewing parties, which are both indoor and outdoor, include hiking and education programs.

They include the 25th anniversary of bald eagle watching at the Grand River Center at the Port of Dubuque. Thousands are expected to attend the event, which includes live eagle and bird of prey programs and trolley rides to an outdoor viewing area.

“People look forward to coming to it,” said Becca Krapfl at the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. “It’s very beautiful to see when you have so many out there.”

Brian Blakeway, with the Mississippi River Project of the Rock Island District, said the events throughout Iowa draw thousands of people.

“It’s a phenomenon that takes place every year,” he said. “A lot of times, bald eagles are private. Anytime you can see this bird, our national symbol … it draws attention. There’s a story with the eagle. They’re fighters.”