Reservoirs and rivers are harboring growing numbers of bald eagles, flocking to the Kansas River to feed during the winter.
December marks the peak time for the once-endangered species to converge in Kansas to feast on fish and waterfowl. About 10 pairs nest and raise their young in the state throughout the spring and summer, joined in the winter by birds from Canada, Alaska and nearby states. The winter birds start arriving in October and leave in February.
"They like to hang out on reservoirs with some ice," said Dan Mulhern, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Manhattan. "They are pretty lazy as far as feeding. They wait for stuff that is dying and easy picking. They like to get easy meals of dead fish in or on the ice."
Between 700 and 800 bald eagles flocked to Kansas last year, said Ken Brunson, nongame coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks in Pratt.
They can be found on rivers and any large body of water surrounded by trees, including Clinton Lake and the Bowersock Dam in Lawrence; Milford and Tuttle Creek lakes near Manhattan; John Redmond Reservoir in Coffee County; Perry Lake in Jefferson County; Waconda Lake in Cawker City; Kanopolis Lake west of Salina; the Wolf Creek Power Plant's cooling lake and on the Kansas, Missouri, Neosho and Arkansas rivers.
Bald eagles in Kansas haven't always been so abundant. Before the early 1970s when efforts were stepped up to protect the eagle several factors shrank their numbers. The once widely sprayed pesticide DDT weakened their egg shells and reduced the numbers of hatched eaglets.
Adding to the problem were indiscriminate hunting, Mulhern said, and hunters who shot lead shells while stalking waterfowl, which caused lead poisoning when ingested.
The eagles' numbers began rebounding 15 to 20 years ago after DDT, lead shells and indiscriminate hunting were banned and efforts to protect their habitats were initiated in the early 1970s. The bird was taken off the endangered species list last July.
Recent frigid conditions haven't been a problem for the birds, Brunson said, in some cases making it easier for them to hunt by killing off some fish they then eat off the ice.
When lakes and reservoirs freeze, the eagles flock to moving bodies of water such as on the Kaw beneath the Bowersock Dam, where the water flow prevents it from freezing.
Parks officials at any of the state's major reservoirs can provide lists of prime bird-watching spots. Some locations offer guided tours and special eagle days, Brunson said.
"It's always a thrill when people see the eagles for the first time," Brunson said. "To me, that is a great joy for this kind of work to see people turned on to wildlife and there is nothing better to be turned onto than bald eagles."