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January 14, 2013

Eagles take to the wing

Crowd drawn to 2013 Eagle Watch

OTTUMWA — The 2013 Eagle Watch started cold and early.

“We were out of hot chocolate by 10 a.m.,” said Joe Roe, a dad and volunteer with Boy Scouts of America Troop 11. “They had a good turnout. This is our fifth year of volunteering [and] this is the most people I’ve seen.”

He and some of the scouts were stationed at the railroad bridge where hikers and bird watchers gathered to view American bald eagles on the Des Moines River.

The Wapello County Trails Council hosts the eagle event every year, said one of the organizers, Kim Hellige. She said this year saw the greatest participation from the public. The walk itself had more than 80 people.

“Nearly 100 people, but the [smallest] number of eagles we’ve seen!” she said.

But there were eagles. Visitors told the Courier they were having a great time at the event. The eagles that were over the river did “perform” for their fans.

The first part of the bridge over the river has a type of “bird blind” with slits in the steel allowing visitors to watch the eagles without disturbing them.

“Earlier, I did see an eagle just standing there on the rocks,” said one boy scout, Tylor Durbin, 12. “It was pretty cool.”

It’s the closest he’s been to one of the hunters.

“It was a first experience kind of thing,” he said. “I’ve never really [looked at] a bald eagle before.”

Others saw the birds fishing.

“We walked several years ago, when the trail was gravel,” said Brenda Gillihan of Ottumwa. “It’s paved now — very nice. It leads closer to the river.”

She said there were eagles over the water, as well as in trees. The majestic birds did not, however, want company, and most departed when humans came to close.

“We walked all the way to Highway 34,” Gillihan said.

But even the ones they saw from a distance were impressive, said friend Tina Pearson of Eldon.

“Isn’t it amazing how they just float — float forever?” she asked.

They were reading facts to each other as one or the other found an interesting tidbit.

“It takes almost five years for their heads to turn completely white,” said Pearson.

Between that and the color of the tail, one can determine the approximate age of a bald eagle, they discovered.

The ladies had gotten some literature from one of the vendors set up inside Bridge View Center.

There were vendors there directly related to eagles and other raptors, like SOAR (see sidebar), which talked about protecting the birds and had some live ones there to greet the public.

Others involved the simple love of getting outdoors: A bicycle shop, a tennis racket creator and an artisan who makes and sells bird feeders shared space in the large, warm hall.

Some adults would venture out into the cold occasionally to snap a quick photo before rushing back inside.

Hellige had recently said when it comes to eagles, the colder it is, the better. When it gets really cold, she explained, eagles seek out places where there is “open” water so they can fish.

Stephen Blaine didn’t comment on the cold. Nor would he agree to put on gloves. The five-year-old went outside every chance he got. He used his binoculars to spot eagles, or, on one occasion, a pair of ducks.

And when people did spot a bald eagle, they’d point them out to each other. Bob Meyers of Ottumwa was over looking at the live bald eagle brought in by the SOAR raptor rescue group. He recalled a time when spotting an American bald eagle would have been nearly impossible in Ottumwa. So the area was very lucky to have so many American bald eagles. Because while there may have been more in past years when people were celebrating the Wapello County Trails Council eagle event, Meyers just finished reading that the Des Moines River still had more eagles along it than the Mississippi this year.

Pearson also feels a sense of pride when she sees American bald eagles in Wapello County. She said one of the guys in her family asked her why she’d bother going to an eagle watch.

“He said they’re just birds, that it’s no big deal,” she said. “Well, it is a big deal. To me, they represent freedom. They’re just amazing.”

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