Red Wing, Minn. — Kelly Larson has braved the cold every Saturday since December in order to spend hours watching eagles. She heads to the same spot, an area known as Bill's Bay, where, deep into winter, boats remain tethered to the dock. It's a Mississippi River inlet, not far from Xcel Energy's Prairie Island nuclear power plant. The plant keeps the water from icing over during the cold weather.
Larson says that helps explain why this tiny speck of water, in Red Wing's Colvill Park, makes for such prime eagle watching.
"They'll spend the first couple hours in the morning fishing pretty aggressively," says Larson. "Once they've had a good meal, they sit down and conserve their energy. They move as little as possible. When we come down their hunting is done. We don't want to disturb their hunting too much."
Larson says the eagles feast on a tiny silver fish known as the gizzard shad. It's an oily fish, rich in calories and a perfect meal for a wintering eagle.
After they eat, the eagles fan out, spending their days high in barren cottonwood trees that line the banks.
"Here's one and he's preening," says Larson, peering into a blue-green spotting scope. "He's having a little clean up session. Now he's inspecting his toes. Here we go. Have a look."
The eagle balances on a branch, carefully preening its feathers. It's a smaller bird. Larson says it's most likely a mature male, since female eagles tend to be larger. Many of the eagles in the area come from Canada and northern Minnesota for the winter. Larson says they're less aggressive and territorial during the colder months. But as soon the spring thaw arrives, the eagles will head out to begin their breeding season.
"So they just kind of pack up and they wait and wait. When it's a little warmer the ice is out, they move a little further north. They want to get a jump on things," explains Larson. "We figure in the next three weeks is going to be the best eagle viewing in this area. So we'll see a lot of eagles coming through."
Already the eagles are plentiful. There have been reports of as many as 200 hundred eagles in parts of nearby Frontenac State Park, and across the river in Alma, Wis, locals say there have been more eagles this year than any time in recent memory.
Larson owns a Red Wing birding store and is helping to organize the upcoming Eagle Spot Weekend. She says she loves watching people watching eagles.
"To see the expression on someone's face the first time they see an eagle soaring overhead, they're just in awe of the beauty and power of these birds," says Larson. "I think its stirs something in everyone. Even those who might not be real proud of everything the United States has done, still look at this bird as a symbol of strength and courage and determination and survival. It's the great survival story."
Larson says 20 or 30 years ago, a glimpse of a single eagle along this stretch of the Mississippi would have been big news. But now the population has rebounded as people pay more attention to preserving habitat. In celebration, Larson and others will gather in Colvill Park this weekend for what's become an annual event. Last year some 400 people showed up.