Dr. Scott M. Lieberman  /  AP file
An American bald eagle dives on a fish in the rain in Clover Passage, near Ketchikan, Alaska.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/16/2007 11:37:06 AM ET 2007-10-16T15:37:06

The bald eagle is back — in the skies, in the news and off the Endangered Species List.

Consider:

In June, the bald eagle was removed from the U.S. government’s Endangered Species List, 40 years after it was first declared endangered.

In September, the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn., christened a new, $4.5-million facility in the prime viewing country of the Upper Mississippi River Valley.

And, in the coming months, migration patterns and rebounding populations will mean that more bald eagles will be more visible to more people than any time in recent history.

A bit of background
Originally declared the national bird of the United States in 1782, the bald eagle was once common throughout North America. (Estimates put the species’ population at up to 500,000 birds in the early 1700s.) By the early 20th century, however, it was in steep decline, leading to the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940.

Sadly, the decline continued due to the cumulative toll of pre-legislation hunting, habitat destruction and the growing use of pesticides, particularly DDT. In 1963, the population in the lower 48 states hit an all-time low of 417 breeding pairs. Four years later, it was declared endangered (excluding Alaska), six years before the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was signed into law.

Between the ESA, banning of DDT and other efforts, populations began to rebound. In 1981, there were 1,188 breeding pairs in the 48 contiguous states. In 1995, there were 4,500, leading officials to upgrade the bird’s status from “endangered” to “threatened.” Twelve years later, with a population of 9,789 breeding pairs, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) made it official with the following announcement: Bald Eagle Soars Off the Endangered Species List.

Encouraging numbers and a new viewing venue
Today, there are bald eagles in every state except Hawaii, with the biggest populations in those states with access to open water and abundant supplies of fish. Alaska, not surprisingly, leads the list with an estimated population of 15,000 nesting pairs and 50,000 individuals. In the lower 48, says USFWS, the top three states are Minnesota (1,312 nesting pairs), Florida (1,133 pairs) and Wisconsin (1,065 pairs).

In Minnesota, the new National Eagle Center (NEC) in Wabasha offers a wealth of eagle-related exhibits and activities. Set at the northern end of the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge, the two-story, glass-and-brick facility features an aviary with three resident eagles, exhibits on natural history and Native American culture and a pair of viewing platforms overlooking the river.

The real show takes place just outside as migrating bald eagles start showing up in early November as lakes and rivers farther north begin to ice over. “This part of the river doesn’t freeze up,” says MaryBeth Garrigan, the center’s director of programming and public relations, and the river’s stocks of gizzard shad offer easy pickings for the steadily increasing numbers of eagles.

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By December, it’s not uncommon to see 50 to 100 bald eagles a day, says Garrigan. In the morning and early evening hours, they can be seen diving for fish, utilizing their six- to eight-foot wingspans to swoop in and snag their prey (or steal it from another bird). Midday, you’re more likely to find them perched in the surrounding cottonwoods, their white heads bright against the sky.

This year, the NEC will celebrate the arrival of eagle-watching season with a Deck Opener event November 3–4. Visitors will be able to feed the center’s three resident bald eagles, talk to volunteer naturalists and witness a Native American blessing ceremony celebrating the birds’ return.

The National Eagle Center is located at 50 Pembroke Ave., in downtown Wabasha. It’s open 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily; admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children ages 6–17. Visit the National Eagle Center for more information.

Bring the binoculars — and the kids
While the NEC is the newest venue for eagle viewing, it’s hardly the only one. In addition to Florida and Wisconsin, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Virginia all support substantial numbers of bald eagles, and viewing opportunities will only increase in the coming months.

Wherever you head, says Garrigan, it’s important to observe appropriate eagle etiquette. If you’re driving, stay in or near your car; if you’re on foot, don’t walk through feeding or roosting areas. Causing an eagle to fly when it wouldn’t otherwise isn’t just inconsiderate; it can cause the bird to expend energy it needs to survive the winter.

So bring the binoculars or spotting scope, dress warmly and enjoy the return of the nation’s most iconic avian. “Eagle viewing is a marvelous opportunity for families to get together and appreciate a resource that was almost gone,” says Garrigan. “The return of the bald eagle proves you can make changes and have a positive outcome. It’s a wonderful comeback story.”

Next week: Top eagle-viewing spots from coast to coast

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