DRIVING INTO WABASHA, Minnesota, late on a Sunday morning in mid-March, we spot a bald eagle soaring high above this historic river town.
The bird’s welcoming appearance seems fitting given my husband and I have come here to tour the National Eagle Center, a modern two-story educational facility with banks of two-story windows and a second floor outdoor observation deck overlooking the Mississippi River.
This ideal riverside setting allows visitors like us to observe eagles riding river bluff air currents, scooping fish from the water and perching in trees. Wabasha, with its year-round open water, proves an inviting locale for eagles.
Inside the center, hands-on interactive activities—from stepping inside a mock eagle’s nest to testing the weight of an eagle to experiencing the majestic bird’s vision to creating eagle art to scoping eagles through binoculars and more—occupy all ages.
But, unequivocally, the major draws are the resident eagles, birds that were injured, treated and could not be released back into the wild. Bald eagles Angel, Columbia, Harriet and Was’aka call this place home while Donald is the sole golden eagle here. The 32-year-old Harriet is perhaps the best known, appearing numerous times on television and serving as the model for Minnesota’s Support Our Troops vehicle license plate.
Handlers tend the tethered eagles in a viewing room while answering questions among a curious crowd snapping photos with cell phones and cameras.
Thrice daily, the center presents an educational program on eagles. On this Sunday, staffer Bucky, with humor, skill, knowledge and audience engagement, entertains and educates young and old (that would be Randy and me).
We learn, for example, that Wabasha provides the perfect environment for bald eagles with the river, protected habitat and bluffs. Eagles nest across the river and at nearby Read’s Landing.
When Bucky shares that eagles are territorial, he mimics the bird’s high-pitched call then asks us to practice our eagle calls. Kids giggle. Adults laugh at the attempts.
During the presentation, Bucky occasionally checks on an elementary-aged boy who is keeping a replica eagle egg warm in the pouch of his sweatshirt. Eagle nests can measure up to nine feet wide and 20 feet deep and weigh as much as three tons.
Today, Minnesota is home to 1,200 active eagle nests. When the eagle expert asks how many of us can see eagles in our home areas, nearly all 17 of us raise our hands.
But it wasn’t always that way. Randy and I are among the audience few who remember a time when these birds were endangered. Shortly after World War II, the pesticide DDT was introduced, washing into waterways where fish and aquatic life absorbed the toxin. When eagles ate the fish, they, too, were impacted. The DDT weakened their eggshells, resulting in eggs that broke during incubation or failed to hatch. The pesticide was banned in 1972.
To visually explain the chain reaction, Bucky chooses three kids to role play a mosquito, a small fish and a large fish. I know precisely whom he will pick to play the bald eagle. The bald guy in the third role, my husband, makes his acting debut.
Bucky proves his point as, one by one, the performers “ingest” DDT.
A few minutes later, after this educator pulls out a board the length of an eagle’s wing span (6 ½ to 7 feet), he exits the room and returns with resident bald eagle Angel. The 11-pound female came to the center in 2000 after suffering a broken wing.
Perched on Bucky’s gloved arm, Angel is the model of perfect human imprinted behavior. She is a guest at many Native American ceremonies and also makes educational appearances.
I enjoy Angel, until feeding time. Bucky pulls a white rat from a plastic container. For awhile, I watch as the eagle uses her beak and talons to rip apart the rodent. I stop photographing the scene and hand my camera to Randy. By then I’m looking down. He snaps a few photos, hands the camera back to me and shortly thereafter I exit the room to view the resident eagles who are not dining.
Rather they are simply perched, an activity which occupies 94 percent of their lives.
Later, Randy will search me out, inform me that I left at just the right time—before rat pieces started flying toward the audience.
WHILE IN WABASHA, we also took in the National Eagle Center sponsored program, “Wings to Soar.”
In St. Felix auditorium several blocks from the eagle center, Southerners John Stokes and Dale Kernahan presented an educational flying raptor program that, yes, involved birds of prey flying over our heads.
Stokes advised anyone who was afraid of birds to leave. That would be me. But I stayed and did just fine with the owls and hawks. But when Kernahan walked out with a vulture and then allowed it to fly at low altitude, I slunk into my folding chair.
FYI: March marks special “Soar with the Eagles” weekends in Wabasha. March 22 – 23 you can attend Sky Hunters, a flying bird show.
The National Eagle Center truly appeals to all ages, to anyone who appreciates the beauty of this majestic bird.
Check back for another post from the National Eagle Center and for additional photos from Wabasha.
© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling