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Eagles on the Mississippi Give Midwesterners a Lift

Nature: The raptors thrill winter tourists who flock to the riverside and watch their aerial ballet.

January 24, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST ALTON, Mo. — The bald eagles dipped, swooped and splashed down into the Mississippi River. On shore, three generations of the Mathews family squinted into binoculars and narrated an excited play by play.

"Look, that one's going to get a fish!"

"Hey, he dropped it! Now they're fighting over it!"

"That one knocked it right out of his mouth."

"He fish-jacked him!"

The thief, victorious, retreated to a tree to enjoy his catch. His victim wheeled to scour the river for other prey. And the Mathews family swung their binoculars to follow a new eagle drama.

There were plenty to choose from. The upper Mississippi, from Minneapolis to this crook of the river in central Missouri, attracts thousands of bald eagles each winter. It's an amazing resurgence for a species that was critically endangered just 40 years ago, hunted for sport and ravaged by DDT. The insecticide, released into the environment by agricultural users, so weakened eagle eggs that the shells would shatter when the mother bird hunched over her nest to keep them warm.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday January 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Mississippi River map--A map that appeared in Thursday's Section A incorrectly labeled the state of Indiana as the state of Ohio.

The use of DDT was phased out starting in 1972. And penalties for hunting bald eagles were stiffened, giving the bird a chance to rebound. In 1963, there were just 417 breeding pairs in the continental United States. Now there are more than 5,000.

From December on, many of them can be spotted here, roosting in the bare trees along the riverbank bluffs or hunkered down on patches of ice. Their bulky bodies form a distinctive silhouette against the hard white of the winter sky.

Churning Water Attracts Eagles

The Mississippi attracts them because the locks and dams built to speed navigation keep the water churning. Pockets of the river remain unfrozen even in the harshest winters. It is in these open stretches that the eagles fish. Their keen eyes can spot the glint of a meal up to two miles away. They plunge toward their prey at 60 mph, then grab the fish with 2-inch talons.

It's quite a show.

And the eagles have quite an audience.

As the bird population has surged, so has the number of eagle spotters. Most are not avid bird watchers; they wouldn't know a hawk from a heron. But they are drawn nonetheless to spend a chill morning tracing bald eagles across the sky.

"The power of them," marveled Rosa Owsley, a once-a-year eagle watcher from St. Louis.

"The beauty," added Teresa DeGrand, scanning the sky.

The swell of patriotism since Sept. 11 may be spurring more Americans to look for the eagles this winter, conservationists say. Certainly, river towns up and down the Mississippi are using that angle in marketing their annual eagle festivals. Tourism officials in Dubuque, Iowa, for instance, recently sent postcards to thousands of Chicago residents, inviting them to "come see the nation's symbol in its winter home."

In truth, even without the patriotic zeal, the bald eagle has fans aplenty. "It's a real success story, and people like to see that success," explained Russ Engelke, a specialist at the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge just north of St. Louis.

Indeed, several Internet sites feature Web cams trained on eagle nests. Newlyweds have been known to spend the honeymoon bundled up in earmuffs and scarves, watching eagles. The Quad Cities Bald Eagle Days drew a record 25,000 visitors to central Iowa this year. As Joe Taylor, president of the Quad Cities tourism bureau, put it: "It's become a cool thing to do."

So it was that on a recent school holiday, three generations of the Mathews family hopped aboard an old-fashioned trolley for five hours of eagle watching guided by Greg Gelzinnis, president of Bluff City Tours in Godfrey, Ill.

Setting up a spotting scope here and there along the river, Gelzinnis pointed out a dozen other impressive species, from an American kestrel to a white pelican to an exquisite trumpeter swan paddling in a pond behind a gas station. But the eagles were the undisputed hit.

"I just think they're beautiful," said Kaye Mathews, 72 and the matriarch of the clan. "I love to watch them fly."

Yes, a few of the grandkids grumbled that they would rather be sleeping or hanging out with friends. But a few eagles in, most were hooked.

Just before lunch, 7-year-old Meghan DeGrand skipped into the trolley from a turn at the spotting scope, her cheeks nipped pink by the cold. "C'mon! C'mon!" she said, tugging at her mom, her grandma, her uncles--at any adult more inclined to huddle in the warmth of the trolley than scan the sky for birds.

"C'mon!" Meghan insisted, dragging the grown-ups to the scope. "I just saw another eagle!"

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