National Eagle Center overlooks Mississippi

She is strong enough to fly but will never know what it feels like to soar.

The bald eagle was found on the ground, near her probable nesting spot, a few months after hatching. She likely survived on whatever herons dropped while feasting in nests above her.

Guardians tell Angel’s story almost every day. She was unable to fly because of a broken wing that hadn’t healed right, and by pure luck had escaped predators.

Surgery helped bone mend properly but couldn’t fix Angel’s deformed muscles, so that’s why she was moved in 2000 to Wabasha, Minn. The 11-year-old bird lives at the National Eagle Center, along the Mississippi River, where quick currents near the Chippewa Delta prevent river water from freezing in winter.

That means hundreds of bald eagles swoop, fish and land in the area – sometimes within view of awestruck visitors, who witness river life from the eagle center’s second-story observation deck and gigantic walls of windows.

Why Wabasha? Volunteers here formed Eagle Watch in 1989 because of their love for the birds and desire to become better informed about them. Soon they were local experts who raised money to build an observation deck near the river and strengthened relationships with like-minded groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Sierra Club.

Many communities along the Mississippi River host annual eagle watching events, but the relentless enthusiasm and emphasis on education in Wabasha eventually led to construction of the 14,000-square-foot interpretive center, which opened in 2007.

Now artwork, film clips, taped interviews and five feathered residents teach the habits, history and legends associated with the raptors.

“We have a major migratory road here,” notes Bucky Flores, education program specialist. “The river’s water stays open here because of our geological formation, not because of the work of a lock and dam.

“A strong current comes through a narrow channel, so we’ll see hundreds of eagles on many winter days, especially when it’s cold and just after a snowfall.”

Three of the five birds that live indoors at the National Eagle Center were hit by motor vehicles as far away as California. Was’aka, whose name means “strength” in Dakota language, was found as a fledgling in Florida and is blind in one eye because of a tumor.

And then there is Angel. I met this middle-aged lady between bath time (in the river) and mealtime (a half-pound of raw carp and sheepshead) as storm clouds rolled in. She can fly 50 to 100 feet and sometimes is placed on a longer tether, to fly outdoors between handlers.

“How much do you think she weighs,” asked Eileen Hanson, eagle care specialist. My guess: 35 pounds.

The correct answer was closer to 10; the puffiness of the bird’s 7,000 feathers can be a big fooler. “She’s just a big ol’ kite” underneath, Eileen says. One with a 7-foot wingspan.

Angel sure seemed content, unruffled by my gawking and majestic in demeanor. Thanks to indoor tethers, visitors get within five feet of some birds. No netting, wire mesh or glass partitions separate us – and this makes the experience more astounding than the typical wildlife rehab center.

Dakota legend has it that the largest eagles would carry the most important prayers to the heavens. I don’t know this as fact, but think of the words we associate with bald eagles: strength, valor, freedom.

“That’s what we fight for,” says Sgt. Al Cooper, a National Eagle Center board member, who also notes on videotape that “you’ll never see an eagle with its head down.”

For more about the National Eagle Center, 50 Pembroke Ave., Wabasha, Minn.: nationaleaglecenter.org, 877-332-537. Use the Hwy. 25 bridge to cross the Mississippi River. The $8 admission ($6 for ages over 62, $5 for ages 4-17, free for ages under 4) includes eagle education shows at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. daily.

Some of the birds that live at the National Eagle Center are former residents of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, which since 1974 has taught veterinarians raptor surgery techniques and other avian medical care. The program is home to 30 eagles, owls, falcons and hawks. Another 800 birds are treated there per year.

The university’s three-year raptor medicine program is the only one like it in the world, and proactive research enhances raptor lives in other ways. One example: Work to study and re-establish a healthy habitat for peregrine falcons led to the bird’s removal from the endangered species list in 1999.

Research, rehab and public education projects also played a role in the bald eagle’s 2007 removal from the endangered species list.

The Raptor Center, 1920 Fitch Ave., St. Paul, is open to visitors Tuesday through Sunday. Staff present an educational program and tour from 1-2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $7.50 ($5 for students, senior citizens). Ages 2 or younger get in free.

For more: www.raptor.cvm.umn.edu, 612-624-4745.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.

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