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The Eagles Have Landed
Hundreds of the Birds Descend on Iowa's Red Rock Lake

listen Listen to Alex Chadwick's report.

Jan. 10, 2002 -- Normally, this time of year dozens of American bald eagles flock to Iowa's waterways from northern states. But this season's unusually mild winter has drawn hundreds of the majestic birds to the state, NPR's Alex Chadwick reports on Morning Edition.

Eagles in trees

American bald eagles rest in trees below Red Rock Dam.
Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. See an enlargement.

Perhaps no one has been more awestruck than Tracy Spry. "Typically, on an annual basis, we'll see anywhere from 15 to 30 eagles in one place down below the dam sitting in the trees, sitting on the ice and feeding. But this year it's been amazing," says Spry, a park ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees south central Iowa's Red Rock Lake.

A dam on the reservoir's eastern edge draws many of the eagles, who come for an easy catch of the day: fish that get knocked silly when water shoots through the dam's gates.

On a recent Friday morning, Spry trekked below the dam and says she "saw easily over 100 eagles down below. And you could even look at just two trees at a time and see roughly 50 eagles just in one moment... it's been just a phenomenal year for eagle viewing." Including downstream areas, Spry estimates "there may be upwards of 400 eagles" along the Des Moines River "in a good year" like this one.

Iowa map

South central Iowa's Red Rock Lake has attracted far more eagles than usual this winter.
Map courtesy Marion County Development Commission.
See a map of Red Rock Lake.

Eagle Viewing Tips

To avoid disturbing them, try to keep at least 300 yards from the perched eagles.

If dense vegetation obscures the eagles' view of you, avoid getting closer than 100 yards.

Use binoculars or a spotting scope to get the best possible view with the least possible disturbance.

Stay on the opposite side of the river or lake when viewing eagles to allow them a peaceful refuge.

When possible, try to hide yourself by staying in your vehicle or standing behind stationary objects.

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Eagles, once on the endangered species list, have made a comeback since 1972, when the federal government banned the pesticide DDT. While the eagle is still considered to be a threatened species, the government is considering removing it from that list as well, though environmentalists say other toxins and a loss of habitat warrant concern.

Spry noticed these behavioral characteristics in Red Rock Lake's winter guests:

"Eagles are... known to steal fish from each other. So if they see another bald eagle catch one, they may actually try to get that fish from them to save some energy so they don't have to do it themselves."

While eagles are typically territorial during the mating season, during the rough winter months they often "tolerate each other" and congregate in the same tree.

If the birds get too close to each other, or if they're fighting for a fish, "you'll hear them cackling amongst each other" like brothers and sisters bickering.

Other Resources

Visit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Web site for the Rock Island District.

Learn more about the Red Rock Dam.

Read an article about Iowa's eagle boom in the Des Moines Register.

See photos of American bald eagles from around the country.

Learn more about eagles at the National Wildlife Federation Web site.