Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

All about eagles in Wabasha March 20, 2014

A section of a map on the floor of the National Eagle Center shows the location of Wabasha along the Mississippi River.

A section of a map on the floor of the National Eagle Center shows the location of Wabasha along the Mississippi River.

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 stunning National Eagle Center, along the river and a block off the main downtown business district.

The stunning National Eagle Center, along the river in the heart of downtown Wabasha.

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.

A second story observation deck outfitted with numerous binoculars, allows visitors to view the eagles along the Mississippi River.

The observation deck, outfitted with binoculars, gives visitors like my husband a view of eagles along 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.

The activity area includes a replica eagle's nest, upper left.

The activity area includes a replica eagle’s nest, upper left.

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.

You can get up close to the resident eagles.

You can get up close to the resident eagles.

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.

Donald, the single resident golden eagle.

Donald, the single resident golden eagle.

Handlers tend the tethered eagles in a viewing room while answering questions among a curious crowd snapping photos with cell phones and cameras.

Eagles suspended from the ceiling and a view of the river from the second floor of the eagle center.

Eagles suspended from the ceiling and a view of the river from the second floor of the eagle center.

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).

A mural provides information about Wabasha and its open water draw for eagles.

A mural provides information about Wabasha’s history and eagles.

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.

Dressed as an eagle, a staffer wanders through the eagle center.

Dressed as an eagle, a staffer wanders through the eagle center.

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.

The current eagle count tallied.

The current eagle count tallied.

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.

My husband, second from right, plays a bald eagle.

My husband, second from right, plays a bald eagle.

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.

Bucky and Angel.

Bucky and Angel.

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.

Shortly after Randy shot this photo of Angel eating a rat, I left the room.

Shortly after Randy shot this photo of Angel eating a rat, I left the room.

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.

You'll find binoculars throughout the eagle center.

You’ll find binoculars throughout the center for viewing eagles.

Later, Randy will search me out, inform me that I left at just the right time—before rat pieces started flying toward the audience.

#

BONUS PHOTOS:

A bald eagle was part of the show in the gym. No, it did not fly.

A bald eagle was part of “Wings to Soar” in the nearby St. Felix gym. No, the eagle did not fly.

WHILE IN WABASHA, we also took in the National Eagle Center sponsored program, “Wings to Soar.”

Dale wandered through the audience with the birds, like this owl.

Dale wanders through the audience with an owl.

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.

Here an owl flaps its wings. The birds skimmed over our heads during the show.

Here an owl flaps its wings. Some of the birds skimmed over our heads during the show.

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.

On the right, you'll see the second story riverside observation deck.

On the right is the second story riverside observation deck.

FYI: March marks special “Soar with the Eagles” weekends in Wabasha. March 22 – 23 you can attend Sky Hunters, a flying bird show.

This girl is looking up at these...

Inside the National Eagle Center, this girl is looking up at these…

...birds suspended from the glass ceiling.

…birds suspended from the glass ceiling.

In the first floor gift shop, shown here...

In the first floor gift shop, shown here…

...Joseph found a plush toy eagle.

…Joseph finds a plush toy eagle.

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

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19 Responses to “All about eagles in Wabasha”

  1. Dan Traun Says:

    It is a wonderful facility and a great place to learn about eagles.

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    We love to watch the eagles so this is definitely a place for us to add to our list. Chris is doing research on it as I type this!!!! :-) Thanks for the great review and photos!

    • You are welcome. I hope you read this after breakfast given that eagle eating rat photo. I debated whether I should include that.

      We love Wabasha, especially in the fall when the leaves are changing color. This is a quaint river town with all of those wonderful old buildings. Lots of events here, too, to draw visitors. Nearby Kellogg has a handcarved carousel and toy store that is also a must-see, although I have not been there in years.

      If you go to Wabasha, be sure to drive across the river to Nelson, Wisconsin, and check out the place that sells cheese and ice cream. We wanted to dine at the BBQ joint there, but did not have time. Follow the river road north to Stockholm, Wisconsin, another great little river town with lots of shops and a wonderful pie shop. I’ve written about that before. Type “Wabasha” and “Stockholm” into my blog search engine to see those posts. If you want, drive as far north as the bridge that takes you into Red Wing, Minnesota. Another lovely, and much larger than Wabasha, river town. You could easily make this a two or three-day trip.

      You would love this region of Minnesota.

  3. We took Abby to Wabasha to see eagles when she was little and it was magical. These photos make me want to go back. Such magnificent birds. Oh, and Randy made a stellar acting debut, it seems! We’ve toured the facilities at the Raptor Center at the U of M; you might be interested in that sometime. They have some interesting birds, always changing depending on who is recovering from injury.

  4. treadlemusic Says:

    There are some live stream “eagle cams” around here that many schools, etc, watch……here’s the one in Decorah,IA, http://www.ustream.tv/decoraheagles. It’s located on the edge of that town near the fish hatchery. Great post!!!!!

  5. What a Great Place to Learn and Explore and Discover! Thanks so much for sharing – Happy Thursday:)

  6. Jackie Says:

    Great photo’s and nice informative post Audrey. I chuckled out loud when i saw that Randy got chose to be the bald eagle. Such a good sport! I like the picture of the owl flapping his wings, very cool shot. I dont know how many times I have ordered Rick to “STOP back up” because I’ve seen an Eagle in a tree along the road, I never tire of spotting an Eagle :)

  7. hotlyspiced Says:

    What a great day. That must have been so educational. We have a bird show at our local zoo (Taronga Zoo) and we see eagles do some amazing things. It’s amazing how large they are when their wings are expanded. I don’t think I’d want to have a job where I have to dress up as a bird though! xx


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