OAHE DAM, S.D. - They didn't spot many of the nation's official bird, but the two-mile walk went well Saturday, as more than 70 people from a baby in a stroller to long-retired seniors turned out for the 'Eagles and Bagels' event at Oahe Downstream state recreation area along the Missouri River.
District park director Pat Buscher said attendance through the 17 years has ranged with the winter weather, from roughly 10 on a cold and windy morning, to 100-plus on a wonderful one.
Buscher and Charlene Bessken from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided an entertaining and informative Powerpoint presentation, before the group headed out into a morning sun that warmed the air into the low 40s.
Buscher led the walk along a paved road that still was snowpacked or covered in ice at many spots as it looped through the camping and hiking area.
Here and there one or two bald eagles were occasionally seen. He said there were quite a few along the route when he drove it earlier that morning, but the warming sun by 9:30 had led the flocks of geese to leave the river and head for the farm fields to feed, and many eagles followed in hopes of chowing down some gooseflesh.
"It just is an amazing bird, if you can find it," Bessken told the group at the start of the presentation.
She previously worked in Wisconsin for the federal wildlife agency. There she helped rebuild the Badger State's eagle population and even wrote a children's book about it.
Bald eagles were a federally designated endangered species but their numbers have sufficiently come back that they're no longer listed, she said. They're still designated off-limits however under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
People should turn in eagle feathers and report dead eagles to federal or state wildlife authorities. American Indians can get eagle feathers from the federal government. It's also possible for other people to receive federal permission for educational purposes to possess a feather or a mounted eagle.
Bessken said bald eagles typically weigh 10 to 14 pounds and generally females are larger than males. They all possess talons, which she said are like razors -- "They'll rip you to shreds if they grab you" -- and she added that beaks can be dangerous too.
It takes four to five years for juvenile bald eagles to reach adulthood and show the classic white head and solid brown or black body. The normal lifespan in the wild is 15 to 20 years.
Buscher said the most eagles he's seen in the recreation area north of Pierre this winter totaled 87. He's seen a golden eagle just once in the park. They become more plentiful the farther west a person goes in South Dakota.
Bessken said eagles' eyesight is four times better than human beings have. "They are definitely great hunters," she said.
The numbers of bald eagles keep growing in South Dakota. Last year wildlife officials documented 294 nests or active territories and at least 112 young were born. "That's pretty good, considering for a time we didn't have (bald) eagles here," Bessken said.
The state and federal wildlife agencies issued a news release Friday offering a reward after another golden eagle was found dead in Sully County north of Pierre. Three goldens and one bald eagle have been killed in recent weeks.
"Very sad to see people in South Dakota are shooting eagles," Bessken said. "It's happening, I would say, quite a bit."
Approximately 40 people were charged with federal crimes in South Dakota for participating in a ring that killed eagles and sold them, often in parts. "I just can't imagine doing that, but some people do, to make a buck," Bessken said.
Buscher said the walk was to help citizens understand responsible ways to view eagles. He said they gather along the Missouri River throughout South Dakota during the winter to take fish from open water below the four dams and to feed on geese when they can.
In winter some trails at public recreation areas are closed at various times of the day or night, or are off-limits altogether, so eagles aren't spooked from their roosts, especially when the temperature gets down to 20 degrees or less.
"When you see the birds, appreciate them from a distance," Buscher said.
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