Hundreds turn out for an up-close look at birds of prey during Eagle Watching Days
By Craig Maier - Capital Newspapers
Portage Daily Register
PRAIRIE DU SAC --
There he is!
He's coming back!
Do you think he got something?
Where did he go?
See that white tail?
There wasn't quite one pair of binoculars for every pair of eyes in Sauk Prairie this weekend, but the ratio was closer than normal as thousands flocked to Eagle Watching Days.
A combination of factors, including open water below the Prairie du Sac dam and a growing bald eagle population, has brought nearly 300 eagles to the area this year.
The anticipation peaked as several hundred people -- grandparents and grandchildren, families, couples, conservationists and Average Joes -- crowded around a woman and an eagle on the bank of the Wisconsin River.
The bald eagle was found at a farm in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where an accident had shattered her skull. Marjorie Gibson, executive director of the Raptor Education Group Inc., oversaw the bird's rehabilitation during the last 14 months at her center in Antigo.
Gibson held the eagle, carrying her around the edge of the roped-off crowd, where front-row spectators could see the bird eye-to-eye. As the eagle watched the people intensely, Gibson said, "You think you're eagle watching, and she's people watching."
One person in the crowd asked if the eagle was afraid. "No. Look at her -- she's not afraid," Gibson said. She explained that an adult bald eagle's only predators are humans, and the skilled hunters have few fears.
The eagle will likely stay in the area until late February, Gibson explained, when the birds will begin migrating north to their nesting territories. She said the eagle released Saturday will likely go back to the pine forests and lakes of northern Michigan. "We sure hope her mate hasn't found another, or he's going to be in big trouble," she said. The comment earned many laughs from the crowd, but Gibson was quite serious -- like other raptors, female bald eagles are up to one-third larger than the males and are often more aggressive in the partnership.
After giving scores of people a chance to see the endangered species and national symbol so closely, Gibson carefully climbed a stairway to the top of two stacked picnic tables and stood facing the river. She stretched the eagle's wings one at a time, held the bird up, and gave her a gentle boost. The bald eagle flew from her arms, flapped across the river, and perched in a large tree on the far bank.
"It is always impressive to see," said Tim Severson, a Cottage Grove resident who had come for Eagle Watching Days in the past. Severson said watching the bald eagle release triggered a lot of emotions, "especially at this time in our nation's history."
Jeff Virchow was attending the event for the first time after recently moving to the area. He did not consider himself an environmentalist "any more than anyone else," but commented, "It's good to see that there are people working on these kinds of things."
After sending the eagle from her arms to the arms of the bare trees, the raptor rehabilitator remarked, "It is the most incredible feeling." Gibson has helped nurse hundreds of bald eagles back to health, along with other birds of prey. "Each one is so different and so amazing," she said.
Twenty minutes after her dramatic release, one more wild eagle was swooping down from her riverside perch, trying to catch a fish in her sharp talons.