We spotted our first bald eagle high in the winter sky over Sauk City, Wis. Brown wings unfurled into a wind gust. Striking white head held high. It would have been downright majestic, were it not for the fact that this was just a picture of a bald eagle painted on the little town's water tower.
But it was a good sign--that image meant that after almost three hours of driving north from Chicago, we'd reached our destination.
In the coldest months of the year, the adjacent towns of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac, nestled beside the Wisconsin River, host bald eagles from throughout North America and the bird-watchers who marvel at them. Eagle-watching is well known along the Mississippi River in winter, but the Wisconsin River also lays claim to some great viewing.
"Along the rivers, anyplace where there is open water in winter, is a good place to look for eagles," said Patricia Manthey, avian ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "This usually means locations near power plants that use [and warm] river water or at locks and dams where the turbulence keeps ice from forming."
The first eagle-watching spot we hit was just north of the Eagleview Dental Center (476 Water St., Prairie du Sac). It's little more than a parking lot with a small viewing deck outfitted with a viewing scope and educational sign about bird-watching.
The regulars are more informative. I began chatting with Mitch Spillane, a bird-watching volunteer who explained that the colder it gets, the easier it is to spot bald eagles.
"All the other water freezes except this patch of the Wisconsin River," he said, noting that the dam about a mile upstream keeps this water warmer and wavy, which lures the fish, which lures the eagles.
The birds feed most actively around sunrise, plucking gizzard shad from the water. But they're active throughout the day, performing their pulse-quickening dive-bomb assaults on fish, soaring with mates in the crisp air. At rest, they perch in bare trees and stoically face freezing winds.
As Spillane and I were talking, we spotted a juvenile (no white head feathers yet) soaring high above an island, and we saw a few adults gliding near a bluff in the distance.
Our next viewing post was half a mile up Water Street beside a VFW hall (700 VFW Drive, Prairie du Sac). Here we parked on the water's edge and spotted a beautiful bird perched 50 feet up in a tree across the water, its white head a striking sight amid the brown bark. Overhead on our side of the river were huge nests built into the trees, jumbles of twigs and feathers that seemed too heavy to stay aloft. Empty, unfortunately, but still a sight.
Our final stop was the best, at the southern foot of the Alliant Energy Dam, another short drive up Water Street off Dam Heights Road.
We rumbled down a snow-packed path lined with frost-kissed trees to find a small group of eagle-eyers.
Huddled beside the bubbling water was John Brugge of Madison, who peered through the spotting scope he had gotten as a Christmas present. "They're majestic birds," he answered when asked why he braves the cold to watch the winged set.
Here we spotted eagles soaring over the dam and crashing talons-first into the water. Brugge fixed his scope on birds squatting on tree branches like muscular linebackers on sideline benches. A few birds hopped along the rocky shore opposite us, perhaps chasing rodents or just playing chase.
My clutch was growing restless, our toes were growing cold, so we called it a day and headed to the Eagle Inn (655 Water St., Prairie du Sac). We took a booth with a view of the river, right near the display case with the porcelain eagles, and chuckled at the "Eaglet" meal on the kids' menu, which comes with coffee.
The residents of these two towns are proud of their feathered squatters. Around here you can get your porch built by Eagle Carpentry and have it financed by Eagle Mortgage. As a proud American I was proud, too, seeing our national symbol removed from dollar bills or presidential crests and soaring and splashing or even just sitting in a wild setting.
It makes you remember that these are real birds, not bland logos.
Out here, the bald eagle becomes less iconographic and, in doing so, more awesome.