One of the perks of winter is that birders can sleep in a little bit. Daylight hours are much shorter for one thing. Especially if you are interested in looking for birds of prey, birds typically don’t start moving around until later in the morning. Searching for hawks and eagles is a fun activity for a casual birder. We are fortunate in that there are two species of eagles we can find here in the winter: bald eagles and golden eagles.
Birders can see golden eagles in the Upper Mississippi River Valley around goat prairies on the bluffs from mid-November to early March on both the Wisconsin and Minnesota sides of the river. While bald eagles tend to forage the river itself for fish, waterfowl and dead deer, goldens prefer bluffs further away from the river in search of fox squirrels, rabbits and turkeys.
If you're looking for an mellow trip this winter, you can’t beat what is offered by the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn., in the form of the organization's Golden Eagle Field Trips. The trips start at The National Eagle Center and run from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Even if you are coming from the Twin Cities, you can still sleep in a bit and hit the road by 10:30 a.m. to arrive in plenty of time. Organizers then will escort you around the Driftless Area via motorcoach filled with raptor identification experts to look for golden eagles among the hundreds of bald eagles.
I was out in early December with Scott Mehus, director of Education at the National Eagle Center, on one of the field trips. Despite the fog working overtime to hide birds on the bluffs, we still saw a few golden eagles and viewed them well enough that novice eagle watchers were identifying goldens on their own by day's end. The birds did not disappoint and the terrain was beautiful.
This is a fun way to learn how to find golden eagles, learn about their winter habitat needs, find out about cool recent discoveries, and learn how to discern them from immature bald eagles. At the end of the trip you are rewarded with hot chocolate and cookies.
Other birds that you might see on the trip include rough-legged hawks, red-shouldered hawks and if we are really lucky, maybe a northern shrike. Another perk for the trip is that afterwards you could head across the river to Nelson, Wisconsin and visit the Nelson Creamery to stock up on cheese curds and local beer and wine or enjoy a tasty sandwich next a fire in their wine room. There’s also the Reads Landing Brew Pub, which offers a full bar and seasonal menu. Both are great options to celebrate after a day of eagles.
There are still two more field trips you can sign up for this winter, and I plan on joining the trip in February. The dates for the trips are Jan. 24 and Feb. 7. Tickets are $25 for members of the National Eagle Center and $35 for non-members. You can register here.