The other day I was driving south from Minneapolis towards Winona on Highway 61 when a bald eagle whizzed over the top of my car clutching its river bounty: a hapless looking fish having the worst day it ever had.
It was one of those freeze-frame moments when your mouth drops in awe of the majestic six-foot wingspan, piercing gold eye and deadly talons just a few yards away, the kind of moment that makes you want to cry into a cup over the fact that you’re driving 60 instead of holding a camera.
I pulled over for a minute, mostly to thank God that I didn’t crash or end up with an eagle and a fish in my lap, but also to scan the trees nearby to see if I could still manage a photo of the eagle, even if it would have been kind of gross with a half-eaten fish and all.
With a tingle produced by more than the chilly February breeze I realized it is TIME, and this stopping and scanning and jaw dropping is a scene that will be replicated over and over and over for the next couple of months on the stretch of highway above and below Winona.
Eagles love it here, but then again why wouldn’t they? Our Mississippi River is in many ways as unspoiled for eagles as it was in 1782 when they narrowly beat out the wild turkey for designation as our national symbol. And on a side note, what were they thinking putting a freakish looking, nubby headed, wattle-necked turkey against the magnificently elegant, powerful eagle when they had that debate? Seriously. And listen, turkey lovers, don’t send me angry letters. I like turkey. With gravy even. But if we’re going for an image here, I’m just saying.
Anyway, the open water created by dams and swift current leave an abundance of fish looking for a little oxygen in these parts, and this stretch of the Upper Mississippi is home to hundreds of pairs of nesting eagles who come back to the region between February and March to take up roost.
As residents we sometimes get desensitized to the glory of seeing eagles soaring overhead – for us it is part of everyday life all year round thanks to the stalwart few eagles that never leave. But when they flood back en masse, even the most seasoned Winonan can’t help but stand in wonder for a bit as the spectacular bird decorates our waterfront.
Soon we will see fuzzy white heads popping above the rims of our massive nests, and eagles will be joined on the river by a symphony of graceful water birds like egrets and great blue herons who also call Winona their three-season home.
It’s a great time for a road trip, folks, and you’d better bring your camera. Keep a look out for me though, because I’ll be the one driving with a camera on her lap.