Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
A bald eagle flies over the Des Moines river after catching a fish, in Des Moines, Iowa. State wildlife officials say many bald eagles remain near inland waterways because of the mild weather.
updated 1/12/2007 3:39:29 PM ET 2007-01-12T20:39:29

Winter is eagle-watching season in many states. But those hoping to catch soaring displays of the majestic bird in Iowa will have to keep their eyes on inland areas as well as rivers.

State wildlife officials say many bald eagles remain near inland waterways because of the mild weather. Normally, Iowa's cold, icy winters drive the birds to rivers to forage for food when inland waters freeze over.

"Typically, most of these lakes would be frozen, but these guys are really catching fish right now ... so that allows for the birds to be spread out," said Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Bruce Ehresman.

The tailwater areas of the Mississippi River and ripples on other rivers are usually the only open water in Iowa around this time of year, and are often swarming with the national symbol.

"Bald eagles are not going to concentrate on these areas until it is the main place they can get food," Ehresman said.

Bald Eagle Appreciation Days are held across Iowa during January and February, and many other states, from California to Connecticut, also hold eagle-watching events this time of year.

Some bird-watchers say this year's mild winter makes it harder to spot the birds in other places as well. For example, when small lakes and streams freeze in northern New England, the birds usually fly down to large waterways like the Quabbin, a reservoir in Western Massachusetts where there isn't a lot of ice to keep them from their food. But this year, there is no ice farther north to drive the birds south.

"The birds that consider us Florida have no need to come (here) because there's no ice in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine," said Marion Larson, a division outreach coordinator for MassWildlife, the state environmental agency that conducts eagle surveys each January. The 2006 count around Massachusetts found 47 bald eagles, down from 52 last year and 75 in 2005.

That bald eagles can be seen at all is what some environmentalists call a conservation miracle. That's because the species was nearly wiped out in the continental United States by overuse of pesticides and loss of habitat after World War II.

"There's been a huge expansion in eagle breeding all over the place ... and some of it has just been natural expansion," said Bob Barry, a wildlife biologist with the Desoto National Wildlife Refuge in western Iowa. He said the birds remain on the nation's threatened list.

Ehresman said winter bald eagle counts used to tally just a few hundred. By January 2004, their numbers reached 4,400 in Iowa. The number of eagles that nest in the Midwest state also has skyrocketed, he said.

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The North American Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey is conducted each January by wildlife biologists and conservationists. Volunteers help tally eagles in designated survey routes, following some inland streams as well as bigger rivers.

In Iowa, Ehresman said 60 percent will be counted along the Mississippi River and another 20 percent along the Des Moines River. Smaller numbers are tallied along other open streams. This year, he thinks, the tally may fall to around 2,500.

"But if the weather changes, and we go into a really cold spell, and all of these lakes and even some of the rivers freeze up ... then their numbers will escalate," he said. "They just aren't going to be visible in big numbers until things freeze up."

OTHER BALD EAGLE EVENTS:

Millerton Lake State Recreational Area, Millerton Lake, Calif. Three-hour guided tours on weekends at 8 a.m. in January and February; $15. Reservations required; 559-822-2332.

Connecticut Audubon Society's 2007 Eagle Festival, Essex, Conn., Feb. 17-18. Guided boat tours for eagle-watching on the Connecticut River. Tickets for 10 a.m. and noon tours, $40; for 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., adults $35, children 12 and under, $20. Children 4 and under free on all boats. Reservations required: 800-714-7201.

Annual Winter Wings Festival, Oregon Institute of Technology, Klamath Falls, Ore., Feb. 15-18. Tours, workshops, eagle viewing. Fees vary; some events are free.

Eagle watches in Northeastern Pennsylvania on the Delaware River, Rio Reservoir and Lackawaxen River, sponsored by the Pocono Environmental Education Center, 570-828-2319. Eagles & Winter Raptors Watch, Jan. 28, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., $35 (pre-registration required). Eagle Watch, Feb. 11, 9 a.m.-2 p.m., $30 (pre-registration required). "Where Eagles Soar," Feb. 16-18, field trip and lectures, $180 (including two nights lodging and six meals), at the Pocono Environmental Education Center in Dingmans Ferry, Pa. (pre-registration required). In Lackawaxen, Pa., guided eagle excursions ($10 a person) every Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m. through Feb. 25, sponsored by the Eagle Institute, 845-557-6162 or 570-685-5960.

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