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Town Soaring With Eagles

Thousands of people flock to southeast Minnesota to see dozens of the majestic birds, which take up residence in February and March.

March 28, 2004|Steve Karnowski | Associated Press Writer

WABASHA, Minn. — Six bald eagles are perched in the same tree, just passing the time on a quiet winter afternoon, oblivious to the excitement they're causing.

Josh Wilske spots them through his binoculars and tells his wife.

"No way! Let me see," Grace Wilske says, and runs to get another pair of binoculars from their car. "Oh my gosh! You're right! One, two, three, four, five, six!"

The Wilskes, of Burnsville, are among the thousands of people who flock to this southeastern Minnesota town of about 2,600 on the Mississippi River when the winter turns cold to witness the unusual phenomena.

For most people, an eagle flying free is a rare sight. But Wabasha draws eagles by the dozens, even by the hundreds, particularly in February and March. The town is also home to the National Eagle Center, a place for visitors to learn about America's national symbol, get viewing tips and see captive eagles close up.

The majestic birds come from as far away as Hudson Bay in Canada because a stretch of the river below Lake Pepin normally stays open through the winter, giving them a ready source of fish. The current picks up speed as the river flows out of the lake and is joined by water from the Chippewa River, so the river rarely freezes over here.

It's common in a quick scan to count a couple dozen eagles perched in the trees. Others soar over the bluffs, circling lazily before swooping down to grab a fish. Some even hitch free rides on ice floes.

Such opportunities brought Bruce Davis from Lakewood, Calif., for the sixth or seventh time.

Davis, whose job had brought him to Minneapolis for a couple of months, packed a camera and a powerful zoom lens equipped with an electronic image stabilizer. He trained his camera on an eagle in flight and followed the bird as it swooped down and tried to snatch something from the water.

"He may have just gotten himself a little snack," Davis said.

As long as the eagles have places to fish and perch, they're happy.

"They don't seem to mind the cold as much as they just need the access to open water," said MaryBeth Garrigan, the center's director.

And the eagles don't mind the bird-watchers' cars parked along the side of the river or the people staring at them through binoculars and telescopes.

"Eagles seem to adapt pretty well to being around humans if they're not harassed," Garrigan said. "They can coexist with people fairly well if they have plenty of food and water and big trees to nest in -- they do just fine."

The National Eagle Center, which occupies a storefront on Main Street, plans to break ground July 4 on a permanent $3.8-million building in Wabasha, the scenic town that provided the backdrop for the "Grumpy Old Men" movies. Along the walls are exhibits of the eagles, photographs, artwork, plus letters from and pictures drawn by schoolchildren. The guest book has recorded visitors from all 50 states and 60 countries.

The center even has a viewing platform on the river.

The three permanent residents are eagles named Columbia, Harriet and Angel. They can't return to the wild because of injuries, so now they spend their days greeting visitors.

Garrigan donned a thick leather glove and offered it as a perch to Columbia, who was named to honor the astronauts who died in last year's space shuttle disaster. She then offered the young bird a dainty lunch -- half a rat.

Columbia held the dead rodent with her talons while she tore it to shreds with her beak and swallowed the pieces -- bones, fur and everything. But she turned down an offer of seconds -- eagles apparently know better than to overeat.

"They don't eat a lot if they don't fly very much," Garrigan said.

The center takes its eagles to schools, Indian reservations and other places for educational programs. Volunteer Bob Snitgen takes them to veterans' homes.

"They're good healing," the Vietnam veteran said, recalling one visit. "When you walked in, you could see the trouble on some of these vets. Halfway through, they were asking questions and stuff. By the time we left, they were happy."

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