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Concern for bald eagles, recolonization among topics at ‘Winter Watch’ event

 Lewis, the bald eagle, with World Bird Sanctuary handler Fred Abrolat.

Lewis, the bald eagle, with World Bird Sanctuary handler Fred Abrolat.

Lewis, an American Bald Eagle, unlike most 13-year-olds, was benignly taking in all the attention.

His celebrity status meant posing for pictures with onlookers and listening to his handler and spokesperson Fred Abrolat answer questions about his personal life.

With his distinctive white head and tail, Lewis was the star attraction at the annual Bald Eagle Winter Watch program on Feb. 28 at Hideaway Harbor Park in Portage Des Sioux on the banks of the Mississippi River. The program, sponsored by the St. Charles County Parks and Recreation Department, gave the public not only a chance to meet Lewis, but see wild migrating eagles along the river.

Lewis came to the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park from the state of Washington when he was 1-year-old. He had fallen from his nest and had injured his foot to the point where he couldn’t be released back to the wild. The sanctuary rehabilitates injured birds of prey.

Over the years, Lewis has made hundreds of public appearances. His poise and ability to fly around large venues, such circling Busch Stadium on opening day, and return to his handler is a learned behavior. But

out on the ice and on an island in the middle of the river on Feb. 28, Lewis’ wild cousins were doing what came naturally.

During winter months, eagles from the north come south to fish because Missouri’s rivers and streams typically don’t freeze. Most commonly they are seen along the Mississippi because of the abundant fish found in fast water below locks and dams.

Once endangered, bald eagles also are recolonizing some local areas. Bob Brandel, the chief ranger for the county parks department, said there are five or six nesting sites on the river around Winfield. An eagle has been sitting on eggs for two weeks in a nest near his home north of Troy.

Eagles’ appetites are adaptable, eating whatever is available whether it’s hunting down rabbits to road kill.

“Everything is on their diet,” Brandel said.

He said he once saw a golden eagle in Wyoming dive and kill a running antelope by striking it in the head, making it fall and break its own neck.

“It was probably the most impressive thing I’ve seen in the wild,” he said.

Even though eagles are becoming more common, the novelty hasn’t worn off.

“We have a lot of red-tail hawks but people want to see eagles,” Jeff Meshach, director director the World Bird Sanctuary, said.

Dan Rademeyer, of Harvester, who was among people who braved cold temperatures to attend the program, said he has been intrigued by eagles all of his life. He and his wife, Pam, often see eagles below Bagnell Dam at Lake of the Ozarks.

Marsha and Bob Adams said they have seen the eagles flying over their house in the Frenchtown neighborhood in St. Charles and near the Missouri River.

“We got pretty good pictures of one on an ice flow in front of Frontier Park (in St. Charles) actually fishing,” Bob Adams said. “I saw one swoop down, get a fish and take it over to an ice flow and eat it.”

Marsha said she didn’t see eagles growing up in rural Missouri; however, In 1998, an exchange student living with them saw an eagle sitting in a corn field.

“Here he was from Belgium and he had seen one in the short time he was here and I had waited my entire live and hadn’t seen one,” she said.

Chuck Simms, with the Astronomical Society of Eastern Missouri, used a spotting scope to find five or six eagles out on the ice or perched on trees during the Bald Eagle Winter Watch event. “They are hard to see,” he said.

A recent lack of birds is a concern to Meshach, who flies annual surveys in a small airplane along the Mississippi to do periodic bird counts. He said he counted 192 birds along 20 miles of the river on Feb. 27 – hundreds less than he normally sees. Counts also were down in other aerial surveys in December and January.

Meshach worries that the huge numbers of Asian and Bighead carp, invasive species best known for jumping into boats on the river, may be affecting hickory shad population – a major food source for wintering eagles. But Joe Jerek, a spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said eagle numbers appeared to be high during the department’s own Eagle Days programs along the Mississippi. He said the prime period for viewing eagles may be past.

Meanwhile, Lewis remained calm and collected during his appearance, but Abrolat said that calm can be deceptive. Lewis is not a pet but a wild animal.

“If he wants to break my arm, he can get a good grip and snap it like its nothing,” he said, as Lewis perched on his left arm. Sharp talons also can injure.

Lewis did perk up when a snack came his way. When Jan Baumgarten with the World Bird Sanctuary tossed a dead mouse from a plastic baggy in Abrolat’s coat pocket, in blink of an eye, the mouse disappeared – a bit of tail lingering briefly from Lewis’ beak like a single strand of spaghetti.

But a heavy mid-morning snack didn’t happen. Lewis, who is small for a mature male, weighs about eight pounds – a pound over his ideal flying weight – and he’s in training.

“He’s got a pound to lose before opening day,” Abrolat said.

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