By BARRY ADAMS, Wisconsin State Journal
PRAIRIE DU SAC, Wis. (AP) — Jeb Barzen is an expert on sandhill cranes.
Pete Schlicht is an authority on golf.
But earlier this month, the pair stood along the shoulder of Highway 60, peering through binoculars and scanning Black Hawk Bluff, a favored resting place for congregating bald eagles. in this area every winter thanks to the open waters of the Wisconsin River.
Barzen, who spent nearly three decades at the International Crane Foundation, and Schlicht, a former professional golfer, are among the volunteers helping with the basic but nonetheless important task of counting eagles at eight roost sites every two weeks. , from early December to late February, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
“On a day like today, the weather is really really nice,” Barzen said, pointing above the treeline. “It’s really cold, but you have intense sunlight hitting the south and southwest parts of the cliff, and then you have very cold conditions at the back of the cliff and it creates vortices that create thermals . These eagles don’t basically beat. They do what they do well, and it’s skyrocketing.
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 likely come from northern Wisconsin, but also to provide data to local authorities. governments, landowners and others interested in eagle conservation. The data has been used to help determine the timing of eagle releases, assess the significance of outbreaks and appropriate timelines 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 Day, the state’s longest-running eagle-watching event, which features in-person programs and online. The annual release of Raptor Education Group’s rehabilitated eagles in Antigo, however, took place in mid-December, with no crowds due to COVID-19 concerns.
But, of course, the eagles are oblivious to the hype and can be observed beyond the event.
The best times, according to the council, are in the morning when the birds are fishing the most, temperatures are closer to freezing and there is snow cover. When there is no snow and warmer temperatures, eagles tend to disperse more and can be found below the dam and further up the river, looking for prey or animals dead.
Schlicht came to the rest site with a clipboard to track the temperature of 27 degrees, southwesterly winds of 13 mph and snow depth of 3 inches. His sheet also had spaces to mark the number of eagles seen flying in their perches.
“We’ll hopefully fill that in,” Schlicht said, as traffic roared a few yards away. “Last time I came here a week and a half ago, I was 41, which is very high. Normally if I get 12 or 15 I get tickled pink.
The 118-year-old Prairie du Sac hydroelectric dam is perhaps the best place to see eagles, as they tend to perch on the trees along the shore and soar overhead on the lookout for eagles. an unsuspecting shad, walleye, carp or duck.
About half a mile downriver, VFW Landing offers plenty of parking, scenic 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 observation station with interpretive panels and a wind screen allows observers to be at eye level with soaring eagles and have a view of Eagle Island, a few hundred meters to the south. The council also has a new vantage point on the Sauk City Boardwalk. Both locations include telescopes for public use.
But for those counting the eagles, they concentrate their work during the last two hours of daylight usually away from the river, one of the exceptions however being Ferry Bluff south of Sauk City, where 54 eagles were counted on the 19th December. counting at all roosts that day recorded 194 eagles, the most since January 2014 when 230 eagles were counted, said Barzen, chairman of the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council.
In 1972, Wisconsin was home to 108 nesting territories. Today there are more than 1,600, and many birds winter along or near the Lower Wisconsin River, one of the state’s three main winter staging grounds, along with the Fox Valley. River and the Mississippi River at La Crosse.
“It’s a tremendous achievement,” said Barzen, who has been conducting eagle counts for 33 years.
Schlicht, 73, has counted the eagles for four years for the council, but for the past eight years he has lived in a condominium along the river in Prairie du Sac. He’s seen up to 13 eagles on Eagle Island, a well-known spot just south of the village’s town center, and has a photo of 27 eagles sitting on the ice.
Schlicht grew up, quite literally, at Blackhawk Country Club in Madison, where he lived with his family in a house along Old Middleton Road on the golf course property. It was there that his father, Karl “Kully” Schlicht, was a professional golfer for 29 years and would be the first Madisonian to qualify and play at the US Open. Pete Schlicht has also become a golf pro with stints at Odana and Yahara Golf Courses in Madison, County-owned land in Waukesha County, and Lake Windsor Country Club near DeForest. He finished his working years selling cars at Honda City in Milwaukee before moving to Prairie du Sac and immersing himself in the eagle culture.
It was during Eagle Watching Days in 2018 that Schlicht picked up a brochure about the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council. It wasn’t long before he was donning his winter gear to stand in the cold counting eagles, first at Sugarloaf Bluff, part of Wollersheim Winery, then at Black Hawk Bluff, not to be confused with Blackhawk Ridge, an 815-acre recreation area along Highway 78 that in 1832 was the site of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights between Chief Black Hawk, General Henry Atkinson, and Colonel Henry Dodge.
“I’ve always loved birds,” Schlicht said. “When I was here two weeks ago, I had six in my binoculars at once.”
Barzen, 63, headed the field ecology department at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo for 28 years. Since retiring, he has continued to focus on ecosystem restoration, particularly on private land. Her work with eagles is an extension of her passion for birds and healthy environments.
The birds are similar in many ways, including their longevity, growth rate to maturity, ability to migrate as far north as possible, and population rebound.
“There are a lot of things in terms of the overall gestalt of these birds that are very similar,” Barzen said. “So I came to rely on what I’ve learned in 30 years of studying sandhill cranes about how I might perceive things that make eagles tick.”
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