“There’s no place like home…” Dorothy’s famous incantation when she wants to return to Kansas from Oz invokes a nostalgia for the place where one grows up. But, it could mean something else – as in “there is no place [quite] like home.” As in we are always looking far afield for our adventures when there are often awesome opportunities right in our backyards!
In my case, it has become my exhortation to explore Wisconsin. Sure, I lived here without a break for the first 18 years of my life. You’d think I’d know it pretty well. But that’s not the case: I know certain parts of it really well, but the rest is still undiscovered! And though I have been working at discovering and rediscovering Wisconsin, now that I am back after more than 40 years away, I continue to be amazed at how beautiful Wisconsin is.
So, despite the cold weather of January, a friend and I braved the elements to drive about an hour north of my house near Milton (Rock County) to attend Bald Eagle Watching Days in Sauk City.
We set out on a pretty dreary morning, yet another day begun with dull, grey skies. However, the temperature was rising (supposed to break 32 F), and lo and behold, the sun burned off those pesky clouds and we had a day to match our mood: Cheery and bright (for how can you be anything else when you’re off on an outing with a dear friend?)
We might have taken the back roads had ours been a summer excursion, but on this particular day we took I-90 north to the Beltline around Madison, and the US 12 north from there to Sauk City and Prairie du Sac.
Our first stop was the River Arts Center at the Sauk Prairie High School, the de facto albeit rather informal, headquarters of the Eagle Days event. (If you find the names a little confusing, let me help you sort them out. “Sauk Prairie High School” must be the combined high school for Prairies du Sac and Sauk City. The towns are contiguous, and neither very big, so they have adopted this catchy name for the school. I might suggest they combine the town and rename it to match the high school, but that would be culturally insensitive. “Eagle Days,” rather than Bald Eagle Watching Days is shorthand you probably figured out for yourself!)
Eagle Days is a pretty low key affair despite the nice brochure and the radio advertising (how I found out about it). In the high school there were exhibits and activities for children. The information is pretty basic, but it serves as a good reminder for adults and will be fascinating to little people. Naturally, the center of attention is the eagles, but there is plenty about other wild birds of prey. We got to look closely at a kestrel (sparrow hawk) and a turkey vulture. Both birds were absolutely beautiful up close, even the turkey vulture!
We also had the opportunity to talk with some of the exhibitors, learning particularly interesting information about the beloved sandhill cranes and whopping cranes, as well as conservation efforts in Wisconsin to protect the habitats of birds all over the state.
But we came to see eagles, so we headed off to the river.
So the deal about the eagles and Prairie du Sac/Sauk City is the Alliant Energy hydroelectric power plant and dam. During the winter, eagles will congregate in roosts where there is open water….and guess what the dam provides? In a severe winter, just about the only open water will be right beneath the dam. Fish is the preferred food of eagles and in the Wisconsin River just below this particular dam there is a plethora of gizzard shad. (No, I had never heard of that fish either. I have no idea what they look like either, but I guess they taste pretty good to a hungry eagle.)
This winter is not a particularly harsh one. We do not have a lot of snow covering the fields so eagles can still hunt for rodents (rabbits, mice, squirrels, etc.) in the fields and are not totally dependent upon the open water. And though we have had frigid spells, the river is not frozen, mostly because of how fast the water is moving. Those factors, together with a deluge of eagle watchers, connived to make eagle spotting a bit of a chore while we were there. We managed to see a few, but not nearly the number we had imagined.
The history of eagles in Wisconsin is a positive one. Though we did not see a huge population of eagles on this excursion, those of you who know me, know I am very fortunate to have a bald eagles’ nest very close to my Milton house. The parent eagles from that nest teach their young to fish in my pond, and the major beneficiary of that spectacle? Yes, that would be me! I do see eagles throughout the summer, and within 24 hours of this little trip, I also saw them flying over my pond. My friend and I also saw eagles as we were driving home from Sauk/Prairie. This is the good news about raptors in Wisconsin. There is bad news too, but that is not my intent today.
If you’re reading between the lines here, you are probably thinking that the conditions for eagle watching in Sauk City and Prairie du Sac are “right” for most of the winter…not just a single weekend in January. And you’re right! Unless you have small children to entertain and educate, you can visit Sauk/Prairie any day of the week from mid-December to mid-February and expect to see eagles roosting along the river. The colder and snowier the weather, the greater the number you will see. There would probably be fewer people and cars too, so that will also help.
The morning (8 am -12 noon) is the best time to see them feeding (fishing in the river). Take a pair of good binoculars. Most of the viewing places are far enough away to keep you from scaring the eagles while they are fishing. If you don’t have a birding lens, you might as well leave your camera at home. Please respect the signs that tell you to observe from your car where those are posted (near the dam especially). There is an overlook right in the town where you can stand on a platform with a beautiful, high, and unobstructed view of the river. It is right behind a free parking lot.
Make a morning of it – besides the pizza place we visited there is the Blue Spoon Café across the street. We chose the pizza place because the café had a long line. If you want to visit the Wollersheim Winery, just be aware that tours and tastings are weekend afternoons. I assume the shop is open every day. And the winery will surprise you if you haven’t been in a long time (my case). There are new buildings – all done in the same style as the old ones – as well as the very new distillery! There was a much bigger selection of wines too – including an Eagle White that seemed appropriate for a winter day of eagle watching!