Minnesota Nature Notes
March is a great time to see eagles in Minnesota.
Minnesota is among the best states in the U.S. to see bald eagles, and March is perhaps the best month to see eagles in Minnesota.
Only Alaska and Florida have more bald eagles than Minnesota. The state’s bald eagle population is large – the DNR estimated more than 1,000 nests in 2005 – and growing. During the summer, bald eagles can be seen throughout the state except in the driest southwestern counties that have fewer lakes where they can fish. When Minnesota’s lakes freeze in the winter, many eagles leave the state but others stay where there is open water. The Mississippi’s moving water keeps stretches of the river free of ice, making southeastern Minnesota a good destination for seeing eagles during winter months.
In March, these overwintering birds are joined by eagles returning from the south, and eagle-watchers can see numerous birds during a drive along Highway 61 from Red Wing to Wabasha. Both adult and immature birds (that lack a white head and tail) perch on trees overlooking the river and often sit alongside open leads in the ice. Watch the birds and you might see them catch a fish or harass and attempt to grab a swimming duck. A good spot to watch eagles is near Read’s Landing, where Lake Pepin (a natural widening of the Mississippi river) narrows causing more rapid moving water and less ice. Just down river from Read’s Landing in Wabasha is the National Eagle Center where educational programs with rehabilitated rescued birds provide opportunities to see and photograph eagles up close.
Perhaps the most impressive eagle activity to watch is their courtship flight. Paired birds perform spectacular aerial displays: circling high in the sky then locking talons and tumbling downward, separating only moments before they would crash. Courtship flights occasionally happen as late as March, but many Minnesota eagles nest early and are incubating eggs by mid-February. Eggs hatch after 35 days and the young typically stay in the nest for another 8 to 14 weeks. This entire process can be watched live via the DNR’s EagleCam that is aimed at a nest near the Twin Cities.
Eagles migrating north can also be watched in Duluth and their numbers there usually peak around March 25th. Duluth is well-known for the fall raptor migration that can be seen from Hawk Ridge overlooking the city. Spring raptors, including eagles, take a different route that can vary depending upon wind direction. When conditions are right, it’s possible to see a few hundred eagles in a day, sometimes flying low and passing close to observers.
Bald eagles are not Minnesota’s only eagles. Golden eagles occur in the state, though they are much less common than bald eagles. Golden eagles are sometimes mistaken for immature bald eagles, but the two birds can be easily told apart with a little practice. Immature bald eagles have white in their wing linings and varying amounts of white speckling on the body, unlike the uniform brown color of a golden eagle that includes a wash of gold feathers on the nape of the head. Golden eagles winter along the Mississippi river in southeastern Minnesota, but typically in the bluffs and ravines where they are less conspicuous than bald eagles flying over water. They do not nest in the state and where they go in the summer is a mystery. Golden eagles captured and fitted with satellite monitored radio tags reveal that some are visitors from northern Canada, probably nesting along the western shore of Hudson Bay.