Archive for Monday, March 3, 2003

Eagles flock to town for winter

March 3, 2003


For most of the year, the white-headed majestic raptors swoop through areas of wilderness in the northern United States and Canada.

But during the coldest parts of winter, when the lakes are frozen and the temperatures dip below zero, bald eagles make their way south.

And one of their favorite wintering areas is just east of the Kansas River Bridge, north of Lawrence's downtown.

Drop by on one of the coldest days of winter and you're likely to see several dozen bald eagles perching in tall cottonwood trees or swooping down to pluck a fish from the Kansas River.

"From the Eighth Street boat ramp, I've counted upwards of 40 or 50 birds," said Mike Watkins, a wildlife biologist for the Kansas City, Mo., district of the Army Corps of Engineers. "But on an average day, you would see anywhere from five to 10 perching in the trees on the north side of the river."

Joyce and Ron Wolf, board members of the Jayhawk Audubon Society, said one of the best places to view them was from a large window inside the building that formerly housed the Riverfront Mall.

"There's a tree outside that big window and a lot of times, there's an eagle in that tree," Joyce Wolf said.

World Online has trained its Eagle Cam, eagle_cam, on that tree, allowing online visitors to watch the eagles during daylight hours.

Other places to view eagles in large numbers are the Eighth Street boat ramp on the north side of the river and out by the Westar Energy electric power plant northwest of Lawrence, Ron Wolf said.

Watkins, who lives in Lawrence, has been studying eagles in this area for the Army Corps of Engineers since 1989, when the first pair of eagles began nesting at Clinton Lake.

"They come from the Dakotas and Wyoming and Canada to spend their winters here," Watkins said. "They generally come down in mid-November, following the waterfowl when the lakes freeze over up north. And they're here from mid-November till probably mid-March, when they head back north to nest."

Eagles have been wintering along the Kansas River for decades, maybe longer. But it wasn't until more development took place along the river that more people became aware of it.

Watkins said a lot of birds like to spend their days out feeding at area lakes, including Clinton and Perry reservoirs.

"When the weather gets real cold and the lakes freeze over, they'll stay concentrated down by the river," he said. That's because the area just east of the Bowersock Dam generally doesn't freeze over and they can fish.

"But when the weather is relatively mild for the winter, you see the birds in the early morning or late evening. They like to perch in trees right there along the river and then they might head on out feeding during the day."

If you happen by during the early morning or late evening, you might see them actively fishing.

"You might see them pluck a fish from the water and perch in a tree and eat it," he said.

During mid-day, when the temperatures get up into the 40s, you might not see too many eagles near the river. They might be feeding at area lakes or farther downstream.

During an average winter, about 1,200 to 1,500 eagles make their way to Kansas, Watkins said. On Tuesday there were 51 eagles spotted during a survey at Lake Perry.

In 2002, there were 12 nesting pairs that successfully raised 19 eaglets in Kansas. Between 1989 and 2002, 142 eaglets were produced from active nests in the state.

"Nesting bald eagles only leave their nesting territory for one of two reasons -- either lack of food or the weather," he said.

¢ Female eagles are larger than males. Males have wingspans of 6 feet to 7 feet, and females have wingspans of as much as 7 1/2 feet.¢ To avoid disturbing eagles, stay back 50-100 yards.¢ Fish comprise 50 percent to 90 percent of an eagle's diet. When the lakes freeze eagles eat migrating waterfowl and fish, if there's open water where they can fish.¢ Eagles like large trees, such as cottonwoods, for roosting. There are a number of such trees on the banks of the Kansas River near Lawrence's downtown.¢ It takes a bald eagle five years to develop the white feathers on its head and tail. The brown-headed eagles are juveniles.¢ Eagles have been documented to live up to 30 years in the wild, with an average lifespan of 20 to 25 years.¢ They have never been documented to attack people.¢ Males weigh eight to 10 pounds. Females weigh up to 14 pounds. They can't carry anything heavier than half their body weight.¢ Their prey is usually 1 1/2- to 3-pound fish or geese and ducks. They also will eat meat that's already dead if it's still fresh.¢ Their eyesight is five to eight times stronger than a human's, and they can see small mammals up to two miles away.¢ Their average flight speed is 40 mph, but in a dive they can exceed speeds of 100 mph. When they hit their prey with their talons, they have twice the striking force of a .22-caliber bullet.¢ They build the largest nests in the bird world.

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