PRAIRIE DU SAC – The eagles here were in a mood.
The fishing on Thursday on this open stretch of the Wisconsin River wasn’t great. So when one of the majestic birds found success grabbing a shad, small carp or a wayward smallmouth bass from the current, the high-pitched chirping, squawking and screeching would begin.
Eagles may gather here along the river in the winter by the hundreds and share roosting spots in the wooded bluffs at night and perching trees during the day, but when it comes to food, they’re downright selfish. Those with a freshly caught meal refuse to share. Birds not as lucky won’t hesitate to harass and steal.
We were parked below a tree at the VFW boat landing, the car off, the windows down. A light snow fell as two bald eagles positioned themselves near a third who had just arrived with a catch.
The show that unfolded 20 yards away and 20 minutes from Madison’s Far West Side was spectacular.
“Food is the name of the game,” said John Keefe, president of the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council. “If they don’t have food, they can’t maintain their energy.”
This has been a good winter to see eagles. Those steady, cold temperatures in December locked up water in most of the state, forcing the eagles to find open water. On Thursday, we estimated 40 to 50 eagles within a few hundred yards of the hydroelectric dam here. The vast majority of those birds were likely to come from throughout Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota, according to experts.
Eagles also congregate in big numbers at the locks and dams of the Mississippi River and in smaller numbers along the Fox River between Green Bay and Appleton and the Rock River, which flows from just north of Horicon to the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois.
The Wisconsin River in southeastern Sauk County, however, is one of the best stretches of water in the Midwest to see wintering eagles. And while Sauk Prairie’s 27th Bald Eagle Watching Days ended Saturday, the eagles are unaware and will likely be here through at least mid-February, Keefe said.
A Jan. 12 roosting count recorded 230 eagles from the dam south to Lone Rock. Two weeks earlier, the count yielded 395 birds, but some of those may have moved south to escape the subzero weather that closed schools and extended Christmas breaks, Keefe said. The largest count ever was recorded last winter when 450 eagles were seen in one day.
“That’s just off the charts,” said Keefe, 71, who moved to the town of Roxbury on the east side of the river in 1990. “The numbers have varied, but they’ve varied on the high side. The last two years have been very good years.”
The cold weather and the rebounding population have combined to make viewing eagles pretty easy.
Twenty-six dams are located on the 430-mile-long Wisconsin River, long known as the nation’s hardest-working river. The Prairie du Sac dam, constructed in 1914, is the last before the river empties into the Mississippi at Wyalusing State Park. The 93.2-mile stretch from Prairie du Sac to Prairie du Chien, creates the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, a paddler’s paradise, a summer home to a controversial nude beach and, in the winter, a haven for hundreds of hungry eagles.
The number of eagle nests in the state has also been on a gradual climb since 1980 when fewer than 300 were reported. In 2013, the state Department of Natural Resources reported 1,344 nests in 69 of the state’s 72 counties. Only Milwaukee, Walworth and Clark counties failed to register a nest, while Vilas County, with its 1,200 lakes, led the state with 144 nests.
Sauk County is home to 10 eagle nests while Dane County has four.
Kay Roherty, 63, lives along the river on the south side of Sauk City, just past the old railroad trestle. She had a spotting scope on her kitchen table to watch a nest on the east side of the river. She hasn’t seen the nest for four years. It may be just obscured by growing trees or, because it was in a dead tree, may have toppled over.
No one was allowed to move her table.
“I could tell when they were fluffing up their nest or when their young were exercising their wings,” said Roherty, past president of Ferry Bluff Eagle Council. “It really was fun. I was in heaven.”
Roherty, who runs a computer technology company out of her house, moved here in 1999 and quickly discovered and became entrenched in the eagle culture. From 2000 to 2004, her enclosed front porch became a research station. It held spotting scopes, radio receivers and antennas for a radio telemetry study on wintering eagles.
“You’d think they’re sedentary, but clearly they move around a lot more than we thought,” Keefe said. “They are quite mobile.”
One bird was released and stayed in the area for about a week before disappearing. Three weeks later, a DNR aerial survey found the eagle on the Chippewa Flowage, 255 miles to the north. However, its journey likely was much longer as researchers surmised the bird likely followed the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi River, where it flew north before heading northeast up the Chippewa River.
When we arrived at the Prairie du Sac dam Thursday, eagles, which can have a more than seven-foot wing span, were in a full feeding frenzy. Some of the birds sat on the ice, a few waded in the shallows and dozens more perched in trees or were circling above the open water in search of a meal.
Eagle watchers were respectful and stayed in their cars, windows down, cameras pointed out. The tourists bring more than $1.1 million annually to the local economy and that study was from 2003. Another economic impact study is slated for this year. The effects of the visitors are no longer felt only in winter.
“We get calls here year round,” said Tywana German, executive director of the Sauk Prairie Area Chamber of Commerce. “They come from all over.”