The eagle viewing is easy along the Minnesota River

Eagle in a tree
An eagle sits atop a tree along Black Dog Road in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
MPR Photo/Chet Meyers

Against the low roar of traffic from nearby Interstate 35W, you can still hear the rustle of river ice flowing along the shore of the Minnesota River. The river is brown and dead-looking. So are the trees on the far shore. But more than the traffic is moving this morning.

"There's our first eagle, right up there in the tree," says Chet Meyers.

Taking flight
An immature bald eagles takes flight from the ice along the Minnesota River.
Photo by Jim Williams

Chet Meyers is my guide to the eagles of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, on Black Dog Road south of downtown Minneapolis. He has recently retired as a professor from Metropolitan State University. For a quarter century, he's been traveling to far-flung spots, and to some close to home, to look for eagles and other birds.

It's a cold morning and he's bundled up, with a fancy pair of binoculars looped around his neck. Chet puts the glasses to his eyes and says he sees an immature bald eagle, probably a first-year bird fresh out of its parents' nest.

But even an experienced observer of bird life can be tricked by distance and the morning light.

"Now that the light has come up, I can see that it's a third-year bird," says Meyers. "They start to get white in their head about the second or third year. But it doesn't really turn the brilliant all white until the fourth or fifth year."

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"So there is some white to that bird," I ask.

Looking for eagles
Chet Meyers searches for eagles.
MPR Photo/Mike Edgerly

"Yes, I can see it now. I'm looking at it through my binoculars. It's looking at us. And it's about a third-year bird," Meyers says.

No one tracks these birds. But it's believed that most Twin Cities eagles have probably moved on to wintering points further south. Eagles like this one, that gather by the hundreds along the Minnesota and the Mississippi rivers, are probably birds down from the northern part of the state or from Canada.

They roost in the tall hardwoods. Warm water discharged from the Black Dog power plant helps keep a portion of the river ice-free, allowing the eagles to swoop down and snatch dead fish floating by.

"Is it an anomaly that we are in one of the country's major metropolitan areas, between an interstate and the international airport, and one of nature's wildest creatures is sitting before us?" Meyers is asked.

Eagle in flight
A mature eagle flies along the Minnesota River.
MPR Photo/Chet Meyers

"No," he responds. "There are nests around the Twin Cities that are not far from human habitation. They don't have that many predators themselves, if any. So they are rather fearless. And their numbers have increased dramatically."

In the 1950s, there were fewer than 500 pairs of eagles in the lower 48 states. Today, there are an estimated 6,000 eagle pairs around the country. Of those, an estimated 1,200 to 1,400 pairs make their home in Minnesota.

Eagles were removed from Minnesota's endangered species list in 1996. The federal government recently proposed that eagles be delisted nationally, as well.

A little further downstream, we spot three more eagles. One sits alone in the top of a tree just feet from Black Dog Road, not far from the power plant. Two more eagles move in tandem on the far side, flying from one tree to another.

"They are both taking off, two adults. They are staying together. That could be a pair," Chet says. "They might well be a pair."

Later, Chet will return to this area looking for these birds. He'll spot them, along with something else. Their nest.

It turns out these are local eagles, getting ready for warmer weather and another breeding season. In one way it's the simple continuation of the life cycle of a species in the wild. But it's also further evidence of an environmental success story.