Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 24, 2001 - Issue 30



Soaring with the Eagles


by David Ledford The Argus Leader

PICKSTOWN -- On the north side of Fort Randall Dam the Missouri River is frozen in blue and white swirling patterns, a big lake congealed by cold. Nothing moves.

On the south side of the dam, water spills into the open channel, and wave after wave of Canada geese honk and squawk as they pass over a campground draped in deep snow. Each uneven wave holds hundreds of birds that circle the dam and settle on a sandbar partly covered with ice. Dusk is settling in South Dakota, and brilliant bands of orange streak the sky the way sherbet colors ice cream.

This is eagle country.

In a huge cottonwood tree along the shore, seven bald eagles watch the river for opportunities -- crippled or sick birds that can't keep up with the flock, or floating fish injured while being washed through the dam's turbines.

"You can watch the eagles dive bomb a whole flock of birds and the last one out of the bunch is lunch," says Nell McPhillips, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "They're definitely going for the weak ones. For me as a biologist, it's neat to sit there and watch an eagle eat a goose."

It may seem a stretch for a 10-to 14-pound eagle to take down a 8- to 10-pound goose, but the big raptors do it routinely.

"They'll hit 'em in the air or take 'em on the ground, then just eat 'em where they fall," adds biologist Jay Peterson, who worked nine years at Karl Mundt National Wildlife Refuge here before moving in 2000 to the LaCreek refuge near Martin.

The campground below Fort Randall is one of the best places in South Dakota to see eagles. And winter is the best time to watch.

McPhillips suggests that eagle watchers bring spotting scopes or binoculars, and that they stay at least 200 yards away from the birds that represent our national emblem. Human intervention can push the birds out of their communal winter roosts, which will result in stress they don't need while trying to find enough energy to ward off the bone-chilling cold. "The wind is really hard on them," McPhillips explains.

Eagles stick together in winter to share food. In addition to fish and waterfowl -- including mallard ducks -- the big raptors roosting at Karl Mundt also dine on rabbits, pheasants and dead deer found in the 1,000-acre woodland managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

An excellent observation point is Corps of Engineers property directly below the dam. Above the tailwaters, visitors can watch eagles pluck fish from the river. There's a tree near the power station that biologists have dubbed "the eagle tree" because it's often loaded with birds.

Bald eagles can be seen behind all four Missouri River dams in South Dakota, and a few spend the winter in the Black Hills. Eagles roosting at Lake Oahe occasionally fly over the capital in Pierre, their annual numbers peaking each year as the Legislature convenes.

Tony Dean, an outdoor TV personality who lives on the Missouri River in Pierre, watches bald eagles out his den window. Dean says he's heard of eagles eating geese, but he's never seen it.

However, he has witnessed the communal hunting of ducks. Three to five eagles will pick out a mallard that can't fly, Dean says, and harass it until it's exhausted from diving under the water. Finally, one of the big raptors will pounce on the duck and kill it.

Each eagle will carry the duck across a short span of river, dropping it when the load becomes too much to bear. Then another eagle picks up the duck and ferries it as far as possible. Finally, the eagles reach the opposite shore and collectively dine on the duck.

"What's really interesting to me," Dean muses, "is how they know which duck can't fly. It's like they have a sense for which bird is injured."

Growing Numbers
Nationally, bald eagles have made a dramatic comeback since the 1970s, when populations dropped perilously low because of the agricultural use of DDT, a pesticide that has since been banned. Today there are an estimated 90,000 to 136,000 bald eagles in North America, most in Alaska.

Last month the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources counted 700 eagles along the Mississippi River between the Twin Cities and the Iowa border. There also are 700 breeding pairs in Minnesota, the fourth highest eagle population in the United States. And, according to the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, some of those birds have become so tolerant of human activity that they're boldly building nests in suburban backyards.

South Dakota's Game, Fish and Parks Department conducted its annual survey of the Missouri last month, flying low over the river from the North Dakota border to Sioux City to count the number of bald eagles perched in big cottonwoods along the shore. There have been 200 to 300 birds in recent years, but the 2001 count showed only 130 birds.

Eileen Dowd Stukel, a wildlife biologist for the state department of Game, Fish and Parks, believes many of the birds that normally spend part of the winter in South Dakota may have moved south earlier because of the extreme cold.

"Hopefully, we'll see higher counts in Iowa, Missouri or somewhere farther south when the numbers are compiled in March," Dowd Stukel says.

Biologists don't know where the eagles roosting here in winter come from because they've never done a study to monitor movements. The best guess is that they migrate west from Ontario or east from Glacier National Park in Montana. When they arrive at the Missouri River, they follow flocks of waterfowl south.

Typically, young bald eagles -- often mistaken for hawks because their distinctive white head and tail feathers don't develop until the fifth year -- show up at Karl Mundt refuge in late October and November. More mature birds arrive in December and January.

The eagles soon will leave the refuge to follow waterfowl flocks in search of grain. But some will return in March or April.

S.D. Nesting Pairs
South Dakota now is home to 12 to 13 nesting pairs of bald eagles. Biologists believe the birds mate for life and return each year to the same nest. The first nesting pair was confirmed in 1992 at the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Brown County, McPhillips says. But Karl Mundt refuge holds the distinction of being the first place where a pair of bald eagles successfully hatched a chick.

Actually, the chick was hatched on property belonging to Bill and Norma Jonas. Bill Jonas' parents, Will and Lauretta, signed an easement giving the National Wildlife Federation control over a piece of their property in 1973. It was the first piece of ground in America set aside exclusively for eagle habitat. The federation later bought property on either side of the Jonas land and turned it over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1974 when it became a national refuge in honor of Mundt, a former U.S. senator and conservationist.

Bill Jonas believes the pair that successfully nested in '93 has returned each year to rear more offspring. He is optimistic about the future of eagles in South Dakota, pointing out that in the 1970s he and his father once counted 160 birds on their land.

Critical Cottonwoods
Jonas' enthusiasm is dampened by erosion that each year topples giant cottonwoods into the Missouri River. And cottonwood trees are where eagles roost in the winter and generally build their nests in summer. Without them, the raptors may go elsewhere. Experiments have been tried with artificial perches resembling cottonwoods, but the birds won't use them.

South Dakota suffers the same problem as other states with Missouri River dams: Bottomlands once flooded annually by the river have been under water for 50 years, and the remaining forests along the streambed are slowly being degraded. Hail storms and tornadoes take their natural toll on trees each year, as does disease, lightning and old age.

Green ash trees are naturally replacing cottonwoods, but branches of the ash grow closer together and are unsuitable for an eagle with a 9-foot wingspan.

"We're getting to the point where we might get trees coming back to the Missouri River, which is attractive to some wildlife, but not to eagles," McPhillips says.

Federal and state biologists have attempted to simulate the annual over-the-bank flooding cottonwoods need to re-seed themselves, but with little success.

"With the dams in, the cottonwoods are never going to re-seed themselves," says Terry Wright, a state habitat mitigation officer for Lake Oahe and Lake Sharpe. Wright notes that the state has planted 30 acres of cottonwoods, about 30,000 trees, below Oahe Dam to provide the thick cover bald eagles need in winter.

Yet Oahe is the only place in South Dakota where the state is working to create eagle habitat. Federal officials at Karl Mundt have planted about 3,000 cottonwood trees during the past five years, Peterson says. And Jonas has accepted for transplanting some of the trees thinned on the refuge. He's giving up 15 to 20 acres of bottomland along the river for eagle habitat.

"Not everyone wants to shoot or cut everything" on their property, says Jonas, adding that some farmers get a bad rap from the environmentalists who paint with a broad brush.

"Taking out of production land valued at $1,000 to $2,000 an acre is a small price to pay to go down there every day and see an eagle," Jonas says. "You've got to give back a little."

An American Success Story-Bald Eagle Recovery




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