Eagle Watchers

Don Dickherber, right, stands holding the strap to his binoculars being used by one of his granddaughters during Eagle Days in Clarksville Saturday. Photo by Stan Schwartz

By Stan Schwartz

 

CLARKSVILLE—The grey overcast day started out cold, made even colder by a steady wind from the north. But that didn’t stop dozens of people from lining the riverfront here on Saturday to watch bald eagles swooping into the Mississippi River just below the dam in Clarksville to catch fish.

This was the opening day for Clarksville’s Eagle Days. Ice still covered the river above the dam, which is why the area below the dam is such a good place to spot bald eagles. The water stays clear of ice, so the eagles can feed.

It was a family event for some. Don Dickherber and his wife, Becky, live in Wentzville and travel to Clarksville often to view the eagles.

“My wife and I came here New Years Day,” said Don. “We saw 12 of them.” They continued up Rt. 79 that day all the way to Hannibal, where they saw a few more over the bluffs.

He and Becky were there at the shoreline with three of their 12 grandchildren. The little girls seemed more fascinated with the snow on the ground than peering through binoculars at the eagles over the river, but at least one took the time to search the skyline.

Don said one year he thought he saw a golden eagle perched in a nearby tree. He’d always wanted to see on in the wild. He was pointing out the bald eagles to his grandchildren, as they jumped around in the snow.

“We love coming up here,” he said. “We do it pretty often.”

He noted how friendly people were who came to view the big birds fishing for their meals. “We’ve met a lot of people out here shooting pictures and enjoying the wildlife.”

The cold weather had little deterrent on their plans to travel to Clarksville for Eagle Days.

“I always tell people,” Don said, “that the best days to see eagles is during the coldest days of the year.”

As soon as one of the little girls decided her hands were too cold, Don and Becky packed them back in their car and headed out.

Just a short distance away was Doug Rosen an amateur wildlife photographer. He had been there since 8 a.m. It was just approaching noon.

“I got here a late,” he said. He’s been traveling to Clarksville for about 10 years capturing hundreds of images of the large predators over the water and hanging out in the trees across the river, and normally he gets there before sunrise.

He had a Sigma 300 to 800 lens on his camera. Normally, it’s all black, but he added a protective covering to the lens, as he did for himself, dressing in multiple layers so he could stay out in the cold for hours to get that perfect shot.

“It’s too heavy for me to hold for very long,” Rosen said about the lens. That was why he was using a tripod, so he could keep the camera steady.

He pulled out his cellphone to show some of the shots he took at Christmas Eve from just about the same spot in Clarksville’s Riverfront Park. Several of the photos captured the bald eagles swooping in to catch fish. Others showed eagles fighting in mid flight over the just caught fish.

“This one was flying backwards, trying to keep his fish,” Doug said.

“Just a few weeks ago,” he said, “there were about three dozen” eagles out here.

The crowd situation, he noted, was about normal. Depending on how many birds are in the vicinity, sometimes photographers crowd the shoreline. There are even large concrete steps leading down to the waterline, which fill up with photographers.

In mid-sentence, he stopped and moved up to his camera to shoot some more frames.

“There’s always a good mix of people out here,” he said. “They’re all friendly and you can talk shop. I never get tired of photographing bald eagles, or any wildlife for that matter. But you have to have patience.”

Just on the other side of the parking lot, members of the Missouri Naturalists from the Mississippi Hills Chapter out of Hannibal, had set up an interactive exhibit where children could help build an eagles nest. The nest they started was considered a miniature of an eagle’s nest at about 4 feet across. 

“We have a mock-eagle’s nest here,” said Phil Whelean, “to have kids involved in it.”

He noted that an actual eagles nest can be 6- 8-feet in diameter and up to 6- 8-feet deep.

“They return to the same nest year after year,” he said. “Up at Mark Twain Lake they had one blow down out of its tree. And there were all kinds of turtle shells all around it, as well. I never thought about them eating turtles.”

Last year, he said, his son was fishing on Mark Twain Lake when he saw an eagle swimming to shore, and it dragged up a 35-pound flathead catfish.

Just then, a family showed up to take a turn at helping to build the nest. It took some coaxing, but they were able to get one of the children to get into the nest.

Not all the observers along the shore were inured to the cold. Some stayed in their warm vehicles while gazing out over the water.

“We’ve been up here when there have been plenty, and we’ve been here when there are hardly any” eagles, said Dan Huggins He and his wife, Mary, visit the Clarksville shoreline often. They brought another couple with them this year. “We come up almost every year,” he added. “We were out here one year, and the trees over there were just covered in eagles. They were flying in formation, they were going all over the place.”

Dan was the only one of the group to get out of the car.

Mary said the following year there were far fewer eagles, because the trees had been trimmed.

They were also interested in the eagle presentations taking place in the Apple Shed at the end of town. The presentations were to tell the story about the symbol of our nation and the efforts to preserve them in the wild. See related story on that program.

The town was decked out for the celebration. The VFW and American Legion were selling hot lunches, as were some of the churches in town. All the restaurants were busy as people walked around town looking at the shops.

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