Know Before You Go: Bald Eagle Watching in Wisconsin

Once an endangered species, the bald eagle has made a grand comeback, especially here in Wisconsin. Spotting one of these majestic birds used to be a rare event, but today an eagle sighting is practically expected in many parts of the state – yet no less special and breathtaking. According to the National Eagle Center, Wisconsin is one of the top five states for the U.S. eagle population. In fact, the primarily urban Milwaukee County is the only one of the state’s 72 counties that does not have a documented eagle’s nest (yet)!  

Why do bald eagles love Wisconsin so much?

Thanks to its abundant lakes, rivers and protected forests, eagles flock to Wisconsin in the summer to nest and raise their young. In winter, all those bodies of water – especially the flowing rivers – provide a food source for migrating eagles from farther north.

Where can I see them?

In warmer seasons, eagles can be seen just about anywhere, even along the lakes in Madison. Nest maps from the Wisconsin DNR indicate higher concentrations along the major rivers and in the state and national forest areas north of Minocqua, including the Northern Highlands-American Legion State Forest and its several lakes. In winter as the ice forms, watch for them to congregate around open water. The Fox Valley is also known as a wintering location for bald eagles, with January to early February being the best times for viewing.

The Wisconsin River below the Prairie du Sac Hydroelectric Dam is a definite hot spot. Search below the locks and dams on the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. South of Lake Pepin and the convergence of the Chippewa and the Mississippi rivers along the Great River Road are good bets. Wyalusing State Park, with its bluffs overlooking the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, is another good option before the ice completely forms.

When is the best time to see eagles in Wisconsin?

While eagles nest in Wisconsin in summer to raise their young, the cold months bring in an abundance of wintering eagles, and the thickening ice forces them to congregate around those open water patches for food. Additionally, the bare trees make their perches easily visible. An hour after sunrise eagles become most active and continue to be so until mid-afternoon. 

Some communities have organized events during peak peeking season. A well-known option is Bald Eagle Watching Days in the Sauk Prairie area, which often includes special educational presentations, bus tours and kids’ activities. (The event is going virtual for 2021, with programming to feature eagles along the Wisconsin River and experts on hand to answer questions.) Eagle Days is held annually in the Fox River area, and includes a variety of activites and presentations as well as sunrise and sunset eagle viewing opportunities, the two best times of day for eagle activity. 

What do I need to spot them?

Eagles are large enough and that white head is bright enough that you can see them at a great distance. But even an inexpensive pair of binoculars (7x35mm) can make a big difference, and cameras with physical (not digital) zoom lenses can produce better photos. Be sure to learn to identify immature eagles, which are already quite big but lack the bright white feathers on the head and tail.

How close can I get to a bald eagle?

Like any wild animal, eagles like their space and tend to fly off when they see humans too close. Designated roosting sites – Ferry Bluff State Natural Area, for example – will often limit access during roosting season to keep hikers and birdwatchers from disturbing them, but viewing platforms, such as those in downtown Prairie du Sac, remain a good option. The platform in Prairie du Sac features a mounted public spotting scope, and its position over the Wisconsin River puts eagles perched at the tops of trees at or below eye level.

Vehicles function as bird blinds and sometimes allow viewers a better sight line, as long as you don’t lean out the window. To keep Wisconsin a haven for bald eagles year-round, be sure to respect their space and let your binoculars bring you closer.

Nature-spotting opportunities abound in Wisconsin's state parks. Find the park closest to you with our directory!

This entry was posted in Birding