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'Beloved' eagles arriving back in Minnesota a few weeks early

An adult bald eagle with its white head and tail soars over the Minnesota landscape. Courtesy photo / Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Bald eagles are migrating back to Minnesota a few weeks early because of the warm February.

People could see the birds in large numbers over the next few weeks as the warmer days melted much of the snow cover with ice breaking up along rivers and lakes, said Lisa Gelvin-Innvaer, a nongame wildlife specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in the New Ulm office.

"We're already seeing small groups of eagles along the Minnesota River," she said, noting that is one of the best areas to see the birds, along with the Mississippi River above the Twin Cities, Lake Pepin near Red Wing and the north shore of Lake Superior in the Duluth area.

However, DNR northwest regional nongame wildlife specialist Christine Irwin of Bemidji said although central Minnesota lake country is also one of the best spots to find the birds, they are now being found on the prairies, where all they need is a cottonwood tree and a body of water.

Gelvin-Innvaer said the eagles have even been known to nest on the ground.

The two are both proud to call the "beloved" eagle population in Minnesota a "major success story" as the DNR believes the state has the largest nesting population in the contiguous U.S..

There hasn't been a survey of nests in Minnesota in more than a decade - when 1,300 active nests were found in 2005 - but there are many more now in the state.

The nongame wildlife specialists said they don't like to make estimates on a number, but the population has surged even in southwest Minnesota.

"You can see eagles nowadays at most larger lakes across the state" Irwin said. "They are doing really, really well."

Some eagles don't even leave the state in the winter for the warmer climates of the Gulf Coast region and the southern Mississippi River flyway.

If they can find some open water or feast on deer road kill, some will stay year round.

Bald eagles that stay may begin courting and nesting as early as December or January. Nesting season is already underway, Irwin said. In fact, people can view an eagle sitting on her three eggs currently in a secret location near the Twin Cities on the DNR's website.

Adult bald eagles are easily identified by a white head and tail contrasting with a dark brown body. Bald eagles attain full adult plumage in their fourth or fifth year and can live for decades.

Irwin loves to the tell the story of an eagle that was banded in Minnesota in 1977, transplanted to New York and found hit by a car and dead 38 years later in 2015.

The bald eagle's recovery is a success story - largely helped by the elimination in 1972 of the chemical DDT which caused eggshell thinning - and an example of how they and many other wildlife species benefit directly from donations made to the nongame wildlife checkoff on Minnesota tax forms.

Besides the tax checkoff, Irwin said people sometimes send or drop off checks.

For the past 40 years, checkoff dollars have been used to fund research, surveys and education for more than 900 nongame wildlife species.

There are well-known success stories of eagles, trumpeter swans and peregrine falcons rebounding from near extinction in the state, but there are about 350 other birds, mammals, reptiles and insects sorely in need of help and habitat, Gelvin-Innvaer said. Bees and dragonflies are among the endangered species.

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