All eyes on the eagles: Eagle Days 2012

Cashel Nelson, 8, looks through a scope at the eagle overlook in Prairie du Sac during Bald Eagle Watching Days 2010 while his friend from Madison's Goodman Community Center Qarly Haywood, 8, awaits her turn.By Jeremiah Tucker, Sauk Prairie Eagle.

Now one of the longest-running events of its kind in the state, Sauk Prairie’s Bald Eagle Watching Days began life as a token of thanks from the state to eagle-deprived volunteers.

Randy Jurewicz, a retired biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, helped organize the first official Eagle Watching Days in Sauk Prairie 25 years ago. The event, he said, grew out of a national census of eagles organized by the National Wildlife Federation.

“We tried to get volunteers to go out all over the state and look for bald eagles,” Jurewicz said. “Now, it’s pretty easy to get people to look for eagles where they’re pretty certain to see them and enjoy them.”

It was more difficult, he said, to persuade volunteers to traipse into regions where there were almost no eagles and confirm their absence for the official count.

“So we said, ‘You do this, and we’ll tell you what, the second Saturday of January in Sauk City, we’ll all get to see eagles together,'” Jurewicz said. “We were trying to entice these volunteers to go to these areas and report a few eagles, if any, and guarantee that by coming to Sauk City we’d show them some eagles and have hot chocolate and free spotting scopes.”

At the time, it was a well-kept secret that every winter when some Sauk Prairie residents decamped for warmer locales, other snowbirds arrived seeking the open water around the dam, the bluffs surrounding the Wisconsin River and the easy food available on the wide-open farming fields.

“The birding community knew about it,” Jurewicz said. “Bird watchers would know about it and they would share it, but the general public didn’t know about it, the public in Southeastern Wisconsin didn’t know about it and certainly not the people in Rockford and Chicago and other places where people are now coming to view it.”

For a few years, Jurewicz and some of his co-workers in the DNR continued to hold a small, informal eagle-watching event in Sauk Prairie. Once the Sauk Prairie Area Chamber of Commerce and the local conservation group Ferry Bluff Eagle Council signed on as co-sponsors, it became the community event Bald Eagle Watching Days.

This weekend is the 25th anniversary of the first Bald Eagle Watching Days. To mark the occasion Kay Roherty, the event’s chairwoman, said they’ll release a rehabilitated eagle into the wild in VFW Park, necessitating the closing of the boat ramp to accommodate the expected traffic.

“It’s been a few year since we’ve had a release,” Roherty said. “We brought that back for the 25th anniversary.”

Roherty, who has been chairwoman of the event for the last 10 years, said Bald Eagle Watching Days generally brings about 1,500 people into Sauk Prairie. She said over the last 25 years visitors from all over the United States have attended.

“I remember once there was someone from Turkey, but I think he was visiting people in this country,” she said.

While the event has grown from its modest beginnings to include live birds of prey shows, wildlife photography seminars, guided bus tours and multiple exhibits, the primary draw remains seeing bald eagles soaring in their natural habitat.

The eagle numbers remain firm this year. During a recent aerial survey, the DNR counted 186 eagles between Petenwell Lake and the Mississippi and said one of the hot spots was Prairie du Sac. That number is close to the 20-year average.

Jeb Barzen, director of field ecology for the International Crane Foundation, organizes a twice-monthly roost count of eagles in the greater Sauk Prairie area for the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council. Three weeks ago, he said, the count was 162 eagles.

The most recent count showed 45 eagles in the area.

Barzen said the unusually warm weather means that the birds aren’t concentrated around the river as they have been in the past when the freezing weather pushed them to the open water.

“This warm weather simply means that even if we have a lot of birds in the area, the birds are likely going to be spread out from the Prairie du Sac Dam to Lone Rock,” Barzen said. “That’s a pretty big area, even to take 160 birds and spread them out in.”

He warned that the eagle viewing might be sparser than it has during past eagle watching days.

Even so, Jurewicz, who still assists in planning Bald Eagle Watching Days, said visitors will be assured to see eagles whether it’s in the wild or the eagle release on the bank of the Wisconsin River and the live birds of prey show at the River Arts Center.

“Where else can you go some place with your family and get an entire’s day of entertainment and, outside of gas and food, everything else once they get there is free?” Jurewicz said. “There are bus tours; people don’t even have to drive around town.”

Reprint of an article posted in the Sauk Prairie Eagle Wednesday, January 11, 2012 3:17 pm

Get Kids Outside Note: 2012 will be our 4th year attending this event. Our first year, we took 8 kids. This year we’re taking 60 kids and parents!

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