Watch bald eagles soar above the Mississippi River

Photos by Lisa Meyers McClintick.

If you’ve ever wanted to get nose-to-beak with bald eagles and also watch them in the wild, now is the time to hit the Great River Road. The Mississippi River, between Red Wing and down to Winona is one of the best parts of the United States to see this living symbol of America.

Wabasha–in between the two cities–is the epicenter with its National Eagle Center’s Soar with the Eagles weekend events throughout March.

Head to Wabasha’s National Eagle Center

Located on a stretch of the Mississippi River that rarely freezes thanks the strong current of Lake Pepin to the north, the National Eagle Center is both a cultural museum and ideal observatory for watching bald eagles in the wild.

The birds can sometimes be tricky to spot against gray winter skies, but the center’s five resident eagles face the river and loudly announce wild eagles that swoop across the sky–no matter how far away they are.

“An eagle can see a rabbit running two to three miles away,” said Alison Springer with the National Eagle Center.

I have no doubt.

March is for migration and bird lovers

There are decks and spotting scopes to watch wild eagles swoop for fish, gather sticks for building huge nests or spiral into an elegant mid-air mating dance.

March can be a temperamental month. It typically doesn’t inspire travel with its messy, monochromatic clash of winter and spring. Birders, though, know it’s the ideal month to see ducks, cranes, swans and eagles. Why? Lack of foliage makes them easier to see. So does the tendency of flocks to arrive in groups from wintering grounds before pairing up and heading to remote nesting spots. It is the absolute best time to see bald eagles in particular.

Bald eagles make a comeback
I often stayed at my Grandma’s riverside cabin in Wabasha in the 1970s and into the 1980s. We never once saw an eagle. They were almost wiped out by DDT pesticide, which thinned egg shells so much they’d crush beneath the parents’ weight.

An eagle rests above Red Wing’s Colvill Park.

In 1963 there were about 450 nesting pairs in the en country and a 260-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Wabasha and Rock Island was down to just one nesting pair.

Now there are more than 1,000 eagle pairs across Minnesota alone.

These days there are about 40 nesting pairs of eagles within a few-mile radius of Wabasha that stretches into Lake Pepin and along the Chippewa River. There are more than 1,000 eagles thriving throughout statewide, especially on the Upper Mississippi River in Minnesota’s Chippewa National Forest.

Take the kids on an eagle field trip
My kids and others of their generation may take spotting eagles for granted, but it’s impossible not to be impressed by seeing them up close and learning more about them.

Kids giggle at learning eagles can projectile poop six feet away to keep their nests clean. They lift simulated eagles to feel how surprisingly light the birds area. Molted feathers from resident rescued eagles are given to Native Americans who might wait years to receive one.

Cultural references to eagles are everywhere–from the rock group and fighter jets to space craft and “Old Abe,” an eagle that followed Yankees into 37 Civil War battles and survived.

Soar with the Eagles events:

March 12-13  The Flyway
Guests include the Cincinnati Zoo’s Wings of Wonder Traveling Bird Show, a session with a loon expert, hunting dog handler and wildlife photography specialist.

March 19-20  The Eagle
Special events include a photography class, sessions on the ivory-billed woodpecker, flint-knapping, falconry and a field trip to hot spots for eagles and other species.

March 26-27  The River
Special sessions highlight local wildlife, birds of prey and symbolism of the eagle.

Staying overnight?
Eight places offer special March packages from $121-$241/night with National Eagle Center admission, gift shop and local dining gift certificates. If you’re taking kids, AmericInn of Wabasha is the best bet.

Make it an easy day trip
If you want to do a shorter eagle trip, Red Wing’s Colvill Park is about 45 minutes from the Twin Cities and another excellent open-water place to spot the eagles. Two years ago, locals counted 156 eagles in one afternoon.

This year’s eagle numbers–perhaps due to fluctuating weather–are not as plentiful as in years past. But it’s not the numbers that impress. It’s the chance to see the soaring flight of bald eagles, see how nests are carefully restored and catch a close-up look at fierce but proud faces that became a national symbol.