Volunteers help count eagles at rest stops

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PRAIRIE DU SAC, Wisconsin (AP) – Jeb Barzen is an expert on sandhill cranes.

Pete Schlicht is an authority on golf.

But earlier this month, the two men stood on the shoulder of Highway 60, peering through binoculars and scanning Black Hawk Bluff, a prime resting place for the bald eagles that flock to the area each winter thanks to the open waters of the Wisconsin River.

Barzen, who has spent nearly three decades with the International Crane Foundation, and Schlicht, a former golf pro, are among the volunteers helping with the basic yet important task of up to eight resting eagles every two weeks from early December to count in late February, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

“It’s really good sailing weather on a day like today,” said Barzen, pointing over the tree line. “It’s really cold but the intense sunlight hits the south and southwest part of the cliff and then you have really cold conditions on the back of the cliff and that creates vortices that create thermals. These eagles don’t really flap. They’re doing what they’re good at, and that’s flying high.”

The counts, which have been ongoing since 1988, provide “invaluable information” used by the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council to document not only the number and location of the majestic birds, many of which are likely to have originated in northern Wisconsin, but also to provide data for provide local populations to governments, landowners and others interested in eagle conservation. The data was used to determine the timing of eagle release, assess the significance of disease outbreaks and the appropriate time frame for construction projects along or near the river from Prairie du Sac to Spring Green.

And eagles are in the spotlight this month thanks to the 36th annual Bald Eagle Watching Days, the state’s longest-running eagle-watching event, featuring programs both in person and online. However, the Raptor Education Group’s annual release of rehabilitated eagles in Antigo occurred in mid-December without a crowd due to COVID-19 concerns.


But of course the eagles don’t know about the hype and can be observed beyond the event.

The best times, according to the council, are in the morning, when birds are most actively fishing, temperatures are closer to zero, and there is snow. When there is no snow and temperatures are warmer, eagles tend to spread further and can be found downstream, away from the dam and off the river, in search of prey or dead animals.

Schlicht came to the rest area with a clipboard to track the 27-degree temp, 13-mile southwest winds, and 3-inch snow depth. His sheet also had fields to mark the number of eagles that had flown to their roosts.

“Hopefully we’ll fill that up,” Schlicht said as traffic rushed by just a few yards away. “Last time I was here a week and a half ago I was 41, which is very high. When I get 12 or 15, I’m usually tickled pink.”

The 118-year-old dam on the Prairie du Sac is perhaps the best place to spot eagles, as they tend to perch on the trees along the shoreline and lie in wait for an allis shad, walleye, carp or an unsuspecting duck hover.

About half a mile downriver, the VFW landing site offers plenty of parking, expansive views and, if you’re calm and stay in your vehicle, a chance to get within feet of one of the majestic birds.

In downtown Prairie du Sac, a new and improved lookout station with informative signage and a windbreak allows observers to be eye-to-eye with soaring eagles and catch a glimpse of Eagle Island, a few hundred yards to the south. The Council also has a new boardwalk vantage point in Sauk City. Both locations have spotting scopes for public use.

But for those counting eagles, they focus their work in the last two hours of daylight, which is usually away from the river, but one of the exceptions is Ferry Bluff, south of Sauk City, where 54 eagles were counted on the December 19 count at all Roosting recorded 194 eagles that day, the most since January 2014, when 230 eagles were counted, said Barzen, president of the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council.

In 1972 there were 108 nesting areas in Wisconsin. Today there are more than 1,600, with many of the birds wintering on or near the Lower Wisconsin River, one of the state’s top three winter foraging sites, along with the Fox River Valley and the Mississippi River at La Crosse.

“It’s a great success story,” said Barzen, who has organized eagle counts for 33 years.

Schlicht, 73, has been an eagle count for the council for four years but has lived in a riverside condo in Prairie du Sac for the past eight years. He has observed as many as 13 eagles at Eagle Island, a well-known spot just south of downtown Village, and has a photo of 27 eagles perched on the ice.

Schlicht was literally raised at Blackhawk Country Club in Madison, where he lived with his family in a house along Old Middleton Road on the golf course property. There his father, Karl “Kully” Schlicht, was a pro golfer for 29 years and is credited with being the first Madisonian to qualify and play at the US Open. Pete Schlicht also became a golf pro with stints at Odana and Yahara golf courses in Madison, county courses in Waukesha County and Lake Windsor Country Club near DeForest. He ended his working years selling cars at Honda City in Milwaukee before moving to Prairie du Sac and immersing himself in Eagle culture.

At the 2018 Eagle Watching Days, Schlicht picked up a brochure about the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council. It wasn’t long before he donned his winter gear to stand in the cold eagles, first at Sugarloaf Bluff, owned by Wollersheim Winery, and then at Black Hawk Bluff, not to be confused with Blackhawk Ridge, at 815 acres Recreation area along Highway 78 that was the site of the 1832 Battle of Wisconsin Heights between Chief Black Hawk and General Henry Atkinson and Col. Henry Dodge.

“I’ve always loved birds,” Schlicht said. “When I was here two weeks ago, I had six in my binoculars.”

Barzen, 63, headed the field ecology department at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo for 28 years. Since retirement, he has continued to focus on ecosystem restoration, particularly on privately owned land. His work with eagles is an extension of his passion for birds and healthy environments.

The birds are similar in many ways, including their longevity, rate of growth to maturity, ability to migrate as far north as possible, and the recovery of their populations.

“In terms of the overall shape of these birds, there are a lot of things that are very similar,” says Barzen. “So in a way I’m relying on what I’ve learned in 30 years of studying sandhill cranes for how I might perceive the things that make eagles tick.”

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