Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Jan. 13, 2005

Soaring with eagles

Last Saturday, with the temperature sitting at 7 degrees, all I wanted to do was sit around the house and recover from the holiday blur and subsequent nasty weather. But instead of succumbing to my desire to "nest," I took Katie and one of her friends to Eagle Day at Tuttle Creek. I had read about the event in past years and always considered participating, but my dislike of the cold weather kept me home.

Besides, I rationalized, every summer I see bald eagles on the chain of lakes near our cottage in northern Wisconsin so it's not as if I haven't seen them in their natural habitat.

But since I had never seen the magnificent birds during the winter and so close to home, I decided it was high time I did.

"Great weather for maybe seeing a bald eagle or two," I grumbled to myself as I looked at the cold gray sky from our bedroom window.

But I put on a cheery face as I gathered up binoculars, mittens, scarves, my camera and a notepad. We bundled up and headed out.

Our first stop was the fire station on North Denison in Manhattan, where officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks told us various facts about bald eagles. The two departments work together to live trap the birds. They study them and band them to track their movements before returning them to the wild. Last summer, department officials banded their 100th and 101st bald eagles in Kansas. During the winter, the state becomes a temporary home to about 500 eagles.

The director of the Milford Nature Center brought in a live bald eagle. She was hoping she could get the eagle to call out to us, but it remained silent.

"The eagle's call is really kind of wimpy - sort of like a barking chihuahua," she said. The screech that some people associate with a bald eagle, she said, is really the call of a red-tailed hawk.

She told us that bald eagles have such good eyesight that, if they could read, they'd be able to see the headlines of a newspaper from a block away. Once they spot a fish, they can swoop down on it at 100 miles per hour.

After a little more than an hour at the fire station, we were ready to get outside to view eagles in action.

"It should be a perfect day to view the eagles," one of the park rangers said. "It's nice and cold. Eagles usually roost together in trees near water that has been kept open by water birds."

We scrambled onto two school buses. The driver hadn't started our bus yet so the girls and I squeezed into one seat to keep warm.

As the buses ambled to Tuttle Creek, some older observers from the Northern Flint Hills Audubon Society brought out their binoculars.

I wondered if we were really going to see any bald eagles or just be cold.

But, as we rounded the curve near the "tubes," someone excitedly pointed out a pair in a nearby tree. No one moved to get out so I put the bus window down, Katie flicked away the icicles that had formed at the top of it and I took a couple of shots with my digital camera.

"Wow! Look at that!" I exclaimed.

I showed the girls the photos on the camera's viewing screen. We could clearly see that one had the white head of an adult while the other one still had dark feathers. The signature white feathers on a bald eagle's head and tail don't appear until it's four or five years old.

We continued to the river pond area, where we could see six or seven eagles in a tree across the water. We got out of the buses and tramped across the snow to the water's edge. My camera's zoom wasn't great enough to get much detail, but with binoculars we could see them better. One flew from its perch to swoop down near the water. Noisy geese paddled in open water, skated across icy areas and took off, honking all the while.

At the end of our three hour "eagle watch," I was glad that the girls and I had left our environment to see our national bird - the bird of freedom - in his.

Eagle enthusiasts Jamiee Tittel with Katie (left) and adult eagle with youngster.

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