Writer in the Field: Winter Notebook

By Mary Hosier

Although daylight is lengthening now in mid-February it’s still winter-like here in Minnesota. Lakes are covered with as much as 24” of ice and rivers are flowing, but only under a thick layer of ice. Water in the liquid form is hard to find.
The word is out among the bird-watchers that now’s the time to see eagles if you know where to find open water. In the cold north river travelers know the places to look in winter: down current from power plants where the turbines and waste water keep the ice away, below lock and dam sites, and where the turbulence of fast flow keeps water moving enough to stay liquid.

Such was a place where we ventured – a 3-mile stretch of open water where the Chippewa River flows into the Mississippi River. The open water, reflecting the deep blue of the sky was peppered with rafts of waterfowl. Mallard ducks, coots and Canadian geese were busy gorging themselves on small fish along the water’s edge. The birds struggled with fish too big, tossing the fish several times before ith was aligned squirming and flashing to be swallowed up for dinner.

But it didn’t take long to notice something much larger- something more powerful was nearby. At first we didn’t see them. With just a glance there was only a patch of white in the trees on the distant shore. It looked like snow caught in tree branches. Then, with the binoculars, what looked like snow became 10-12 Bald eagles roosting in the trees! They were spread out in the trees and along the ice facing us and the river. Soon we began to see them everywhere. Eagles swooping down into the water, and eagles soaring above the open water along the length of the river and up into the bluffs behind us.

The eagles were fishing. They were focused on the water. Using their keen eagle-eye vision, the smallest clues - invisible to us - drove them off their roosts and soaring down and along the water’s surface. A quick pounce into the water would sometimes lead to success. Then clutching a fighting fish with strong talons the eagle rose with a meal.

We were mesmerized for an hour losing count after 29 adults and juveniles were sighted. Although it looked like an effortless enjoyment of soaring and flight, the eagles' instinct to search out food in this cold winter weather meant survival for one more day to these wild birds of prey.

Journaling Questions:

  1. Ducks snatch their fish with their bills. What do the eagles use and why?
  2. Why do you think these eagles don’t just move further south where it’s warmer and they can find more open water?
  3. Who has better vision, humans or eagles? State an example to show your point.
  4. Why do you think eagles spend so much time roosting in trees along the water's edge?
  5. Are eagles searching for food or do you think they enjoy soaring over the landscape? Why?