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Birds-eye view

Coralville Lake Eagle Watch and Expo: attendance and eagles rebound

JOHNSON COUNTY– The weather was more cooperative this year for the third annual Coralville Lake Eagle Watch and Expo, held Feb. 7, at the Coralville Lake and North Central Junior High in North Liberty.
Last year, an early morning snowstorm and icy conditions kept attendance down, but this time, the sun was shining and the temperatures mild, bringing the best attendance the event has seen, including the birds.
Co-hosted by the Iowa City Bird Club, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife Diversity Program and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District, the Eagle Watch and Expo combines outdoor eagle viewing with indoor displays, activities and presentations by local wildlife organizations and bird experts.
This year’s bird presenters included Iowa author and nature photographer Ty Smedes, who talked about the bald eagle’s return to Iowa. Luke Hart from the Macbride Raptor Project taught audiences more about hawks, and Mike Havlik from the Des Moines Y-Camp in Boone brought his live barred owl, rescued from the wild after a severe injury, to educate audiences on different types of owls.
Havlik’s presentation always includes the maxim, “knowledge plus caring equals responsible choices,” to teach people that human behavior impacts birds of prey, and advises better ways to interact with nature to avoid harming wildlife.
Havlik’s most important message of the day was to refrain from throwing food scraps out of car windows, as it attracts rodents that the birds prey upon, bringing the animals close to roadways and frequently into the path of injury or death.
It’s often one of the biggest take-away moments for Havlik’s audiences, including for Jerry Neal of Mount Vernon.
“I’ve never thought about throwing food out the window being harmful,” said Neal.
Neal and his grandsons, Kyle and Cody Bach of Lisbon, were excited to see the raptors.
“Both of these boys are major bird lovers,” said Neal. “Kyle can name all the birds in the bird books even though he can’t read yet.”
Exhibitors included the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union, Iowa Audubon Society, Iowa City Bird Club, Iowa Wildlife Federation and the conservation departments from Iowa, Cedar and Johnson counties.
In addition to the indoor fun, an eagle viewing station was set up at Coralville Lake’s Tailwater West area, with assistance, scopes and binoculars provided by volunteers from the Corps of Engineers and the Iowa DNR.
“We had great turnout,” said Karen Disbrow, with the Iowa Ornithologist Union and Iowa City Bird Club. “We had a lot of people show up at Tail Water, and there were about 20 or 25 eagles out there early this morning.”
Disbrow estimated about 200 people attended throughout the day. Also attending Havlik’s presentation were BJ Jaggers and his children, Sarah and Noah. The children had not seen a live owl before.
“We live just down the street, so we planned our day to come here. What really got us excited is Sarah loves owls, so we came to see the owl,” said BJ. “We’ll come back again.”
That’s exactly what Terry Escher, Natural Resource Specialist for the Army Corps, wants to hear.
“We do this because it lets people know more about our organization and what we do,” said Escher. “We don’t just build dams. We help wildlife, too, and we just want everyone to get outdoors and enjoy the nature around us.”
Wildlife Federation volunteer Joe Wilkinson of Solon, who also works for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the Eagle Watch and Expo is a good event to draw people out in a season where they are more inclined to stay indoors.
“I think it’s a combination of the speakers and the displays and the spotting scopes: you see (the raptors) a little more in their own environment; it’s not just the birds you see at your back yard feeders. You learn more about what they need and how they survive,” said Wilkinson. “It’s the dead of winter, but you can kind of bring the outside inside.”
Iowa author and professional nature photographer Ty Smedes’ recent book is titled “The Return of Iowa’s Bald Eagles.” Smedes gave a presentation about the birds and his research on them, and later summarized the eagle’s comeback.
“We had our last nest in the 20th century in 1907, and it wasn’t until 1977 we found another in Allamakee County,” said Smedes. “So we went 70 years without a nest. Now, the last set of statistics show we have eagles in 97 of 99 counties, over 300 young raised in the state; it’s an incredible success story.”
Smedes said the bald eagle’s return is largely attributed to outlawing the insecticide DDT and the federal government’s Endangered Species Act of 1973.
“That offered all kinds of protection for migration areas and fishing areas,” he said.
The bald eagle, the only eagle unique to North America, and golden eagle are now off the endangered species list, though both are still protected under federal law. Smedes said in the 1960s, the lowest point in the bald eagle’s history, they numbered around 5,000 nationwide. Naturalists estimate there are around 50,000 bald eagles today, an increase of 10 to 1.
“How cool is that?” Smedes remarked.
Smedes spoke of the wide appeal of the bird that has been the national symbol.
“It’s a handsome bird. I think its demeanor captures everyone’s attention,” said Smedes. “It looks fierce, determined, majestic; every positive adjective you can think of applies to that bird. Everywhere you go, when someone sees an eagle, they get excited. I give these presentations all over the state, and it doesn’t wear off. People are as excited about eagles as they ever were.”