Visitors flock to a Lawrence outlet mall to see the eagles that gather outside it each winter.
The oddity of standing inside a mall in Kansas and looking through a plate glass window at half a dozen wild, free, hungry bald eagles wasn't lost on Richard Turney.
"This is a real treat," the Overland Park computer salesman said Saturday, when he stood in hushed amazement inside the Lawrence Riverfront Plaza Factory Outlets with about a dozen other eagle watchers.
He was one of several visitors who had gone to the downtown mall not to buy anything but to watch eagles perched in a tree about 30 feet from a mall window.
A week earlier, Turney was shopping in the mall when he looked out the window and saw several eagles in the tree.
"It created such a sense of reverence that I had to come back and look at them again," he said.
Others from far and near also have picked up on the mall's growing reputation as a prime spot for watching wintering eagles.
On Saturday, as many as 11 eagles at a time were spotted in the upper branches of an isolated cottonwood growing just outside the mall along the Kansas River's snow-crusted banks.
The scene inside the mall around noon was zoolike, only better -- the eagles could come and go as they pleased. It was the people, nearly eye-to-eye with the eagles, who were caged indoors. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closes the mall's outdoor promenade in January and February to protect the eagles from disturbances.
The eagles, seasonal migrants from the north attracted to the river's open water and its fish just below the small hydroelectric Bowersock dam, seemed oblivious to their celebrity. Some launched into the air from the tree's upper branches, then circled above the river or swooped down to the water's surface to sink their powerful claws into unsuspecting fish -- or at least to try.
Some returned to the tree to scan for prey. Others soared east above the river and out of sight, toward cottonwoods further downstream.
As some eagles disappeared, others appeared on the horizon, so that at any moment there were at least six of them in sight. There's no telling how many were actually gathered along the river on Saturday.
People gathered at windows on the mall's first and second levels. Men, women and children stood with their jackets unzipped, bags from mall shops hanging at their sides. Some sipped soft drinks; others munched snacks in warm, wintry indoor comfort while Muzak hummed from hidden speakers.
Some younger children were more interested in the freight trains that rolled past on the other side of the river.
But Anthony Carver, 14, and his 12-year-old friend, Kris Pittman, watched quietly, intently. They had come to the mall with Anthony's parents, who were nearing the end of a twice-yearly shopping trip to the Kansas City area from their home in El Dorado, near Wichita.
Pittman had seen an eagle dive for one of the many ducks feeding in the river below. Eagles are both hunters and scavengers and will eat whatever they can get their hooked beaks into.
Anthony sent his father out to the car to get a camera.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said the boy's mother, Twila Carver.
Thirty years ago, such a large gathering of eagles was feared to be a never-in-a-lifetime experience. In most parts of the country, it still is.
Bald eagles were on the brink of extinction in the 1960s, when their reproduction rates plummeted because of the pesticide DDT.
The government banned DDT in 1972, when it was estimated there were fewer than 2,000 bald eagles in the contiguous 48 states. A year later, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, which banned the killing of bald eagles and other threatened animals.
By the summer of 1994, bald eagles had made such a remarkable comeback nationwide, to a population of more than 10,000, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service downgraded the eagle's status in most of its range from endangered to threatened.
A pair of bald eagles has spent most of each year since 1989 nesting at Clinton Lake, west of Lawrence.
When the three-story downtown outlet mall was built on the banks of the Kaw in 1988, protesters chained themselves to cottonwoods at the construction site to prevent destruction of eagle habitat. They feared building a mall there would scare off the eagles.
But ever since the mall opened in 1990, eagles have been spotted in the skies and trees near it during the winter months. This year, the eagles have been gathering in a cottonwood ideally positioned for viewing from within the mall.
Their appearances there make for persuasive, peculiarly American wildlife theater. It's not mountain majesty. It's bald eagles, live at the outlet mall.
"There they are," Allison Prester, 33, said to her son Matthew, nearly 2 years old and strapped into a backpack papoose. "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. See them?"
Matthew nodded and smiled. His mother, an operating room nurse at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, had come to the mall to walk its heated halls for exercise.
She watched the birds for a few moments, then continued with her walk.