Scott Mehus. Photo by Robb Long.
Each year in March, visitors at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha get a look at some of the hundreds of bald eagles that migrate during nesting season along the Mississippi River. Scott Mehus, the center’s education director for the past nine years, also spearheads research on Minnesota’s golden eagle population, organizing the annual Wintering Golden Eagles Survey and founding the Golden Eagle Project.
“Twenty years ago, I was starting to look for golden eagles as a hobby. I’ve driven all the roads in bluff country in southeast Minnesota, western Wisconsin, and northeast Iowa looking for them. I was reporting more golden eagles than have ever been reported. Most people didn’t even realize that golden eagles were in Minnesota. They’re found from about the Missouri River westward, all the way to California, and up into Canada and Alaska. They are also found in the northern half of Mexico. (It’s the bird that’s on the Mexican flag.)”
“Because we put radio transmitters on golden eagles in the area, we know they’re leaving Minnesota and Wisconsin, then flying north about 2,000 miles or so into Canada, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, just below the arctic circle, to spend the summer. Then they come back here for winter.”
“Several Canadian provinces list the golden eagle as threatened, and even endangered. We need to be concerned about the golden eagle as it’s relying on Minnesota habitat to get them through winter. Most wildlife managers had no idea the bird was here, let alone its habitat requirements. So, because of the Golden Eagle Project, we’re finding that out and we’re able to share that knowledge.”
“We also have bald eagles that spend the winter here in Wabasha, and others that live up in northern Minnesota and Canada that are going to be starting to lay eggs in late March and April. Because they feed on fish (and a variety of other things), they tend to use the river system as a migratory corridor. That means they move through this river valley back to their nesting territories. March is a good time to see all kinds of action going on at the Eagle Center.”
“Several years ago, I was leading a field trip in Read’s Landing [near Wabasha] and we saw more than 1,000 bald eagles. There was once a time when there weren’t even 1,000 bald eagles left in all the lower 48, so that was quite an amazing spectacle.”
“The bald eagle went through a decline and was in danger of going extinct because of DDT, but once we removed DDT in the ’70s, the numbers of bald eagles have definitely increased. There was a time between 1968 and 1972 when from Wabasha to Rock Island, Illinois—261 miles of river—there was only one nesting pair of eagles left. Today that same stretch of river has more than 313 nesting pairs of bald eagles, so it’s definitely an amazing comeback.”