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It's prime eagle-watching season. Here's how to best spot the birds and an event that celebrates them.

Shane Nyman
Appleton Post-Crescent
A bald eagle is perched in a tall tree overlooking the Fox River on Jan. 15 in Appleton.

KAUKAUNA - Eyes to the skies, people. It's eagle-spotting season.

This is the time of year where, if all goes as hoped, the Fox River and surrounding areas will be decorated with bald eagles. They've become such an attraction that 1000 Islands Environmental Center, 1000 Beaulieu Court, a handful of years ago launched its Eagle Days celebration to encourage people to get outside and check out the majestic birds.

This year's event is set for Saturday, with a full day of eagle-related activities planned at the center. 

To help explain why Eagle Days is a thing and what those taking part can expect, we connected with Debra Nowak, naturalist and director at 1000 Islands. 

What's special about this time of year? 

January is peak eagle-viewing time around the Fox River. Although the birds can be spotted year-round, hungry eagles migrate from around Wisconsin, northern Michigan and beyond to find open water for feeding. The Fox River is a great place to find open water in the dead of winter. 

"The flow of the Fox River, not to mention the industry on the Fox River, (means) there's always pockets of open water so it makes it an awesome winter destination for some eagles," Nowak said. 

About 90 percent of a bald eagle's diet comes from fish, Nowak said, so they're often spotted perched in a tree high above the water and waiting for a shot at their next meal.

They especially like the area around 1000 Islands, she said, because of the islands from which the center gets its name. 

What can be seen around the Fox River?

Like so much of nature, things vary year to year. Nowak said some years there are so many bald eagles around the river they're hard to count. 

"Some of our biggest years that we've had — I have a single photograph where you can see 26 eagles in one frame of the photo," she said. "There've been years where you walk the 3/4 of a mile trail here at 1000 Islands and you could count 100 eagles. Those are the boomer years." 

Because of the mild winter, this year could be on the leaner side. More open water means more area to hunt. 

When and where? 

The best times to spot eagles is around sunrise and sunset, Nowak said. The birds will often roost around the islands, then take off in search of food during the daytime. 

"It's an awesome sight," Nowak said of the scene sometimes during sunset. "It almost looks like we have a little airport runway here on the river because you'll see them kind of come in one after the other." 

For the Eagle Days event, 1000 Islands hosts gatherings for viewings at 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. Guests also are welcome to come throughout the day. The center has two viewing sites and spotting scopes and binoculars will be available. There also will be volunteers helping out. 

"Last year we had some super bitterly cold weather so we're hoping it'll be a little more tolerable for humans out there," Nowak said. 

What else is happening?

In between the morning and evening viewings, 1000 Islands has programming for crowds of all ages. Highlights include the release of a rehabilitated bald eagle from the nonprofit Wildlife of Wisconsin at 9 a.m.; live bald eagle presentations by a naturalist from the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota at 10 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m.; and crafts, door prizes and other hands-on activities throughout the day. 

The live eagle presentations usually draw big crowds, Nowak said, so they have three over the course of the day. The guest eagle this year, named Latch, is a newcomer to the event. 

Some reminders

♦ Unless you're just looking for a quick photo for Instagram, you might be out in the cold for a while. Dress for the weather. 

♦ Though not necessary, binoculars are a plus. 

♦ While 1000 Islands is a great spot to look for eagles, anywhere along the Fox River at this time of year could work. Just be careful. 

♦ And while the river is a likely spot to see them, eagles could be just about anywhere, including farm fields, soaring over busy areas of town or picking at roadkill. (They're scavengers, remember.) 

♦ Be respectful of the birds. If you get too close it'll startle them and they'll take off. It's best to watch from a distance and leave them undisturbed.

An eagle soars above the Fox River near Lutz Park in Appleton in 2017.

Contact Shane Nyman at 920-996-7223 or snyman@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @shanenyman.