Below freezing temperatures and a biting wind couldn't keep people away from an opportunity to view bald eagles live and in person this weekend.
Starting at 9 a.m. Saturday, the Runge Nature Center held Eagle Explore at the Marion Access on the Missouri River. Because of the pandemic, the event was split into one-hour increments between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., with people having to register for a time slot in advance and wear masks.
Kevin Lohraff, manager at the Runge Nature Center, said at one point, they counted 44 bald eagles on a sandbar within view of the access. He said the event used to be called Eagle Adventure, but they opted to change the name to indicate the event is different this year. Instead of the usual Eagle Days events, which would involve partnering with Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield to bring live bald eagles into Runge for presentations and programs, many events are being held virtually this year. The Runge Center is closed to indoor programs for the rest of the month due to the pandemic but is continuing to offer as much outdoor programming as possible.
That's something for which Amy Fitzwater is grateful.
Fitzwater brought her daughters out to see the bald eagles Saturday morning. While her youngest seemed more interested in scouting good rocks from the shoreline, Fitzwater said they all enjoyed seeing the eagles, noting they were able to watch them feed on a deer carcass, soar above them in the air, prepare a nest and hang out on the nearby sandbar.
"We love nature," Fitzwater said. "It's been lots of fun."
Fitzwater said she and her daughters always enjoy the programming at Runge, noting they've enjoyed other outdoor programs being offered during the pandemic.
In addition to the outdoor programming, Lohraff said they've been working hard to develop a variety of virtual programs.
The event Saturday was further evidence of what Lohraff called "a really neat conservation success story." In 1978, there were no eagles nests in Missouri and only a few hundred birds in all of America due to deforesting and the use of agricultural pesticides. Now, Lohraff said, there are more than 500 nests in Missouri alone.
In addition to the Missouri-based eagles, Lohraff said Saturday's event likely saw many eagles that migrated to the area from farther north in order to find an unfrozen body of water where they can catch fish to eat.
At Saturday's event, there were about six to eight volunteers and five Runge employees on hand to assist people with viewing through the available scopes and answer questions about the eagles themselves. It's great, Lohraff said, to see people celebrate the success of the bald eagles.
"Luckily, the river is low, so folks are able to see the eagles really close," Lohraff said.
Scopes were set up apart from each other to comply with recommended physical distancing guidelines, and stands were available to allow young children to peer through and see the birds across the river. With the clear sky and low river, viewing conditions could not have been better. Shortly after 10 a.m., two eagles were seen soaring above the access, low enough to see details on one of the eagle's wings. And Lohraff pointed out two adult eagles that could be seen through a scope preparing a nest in a tree across the river. It was possible to see the pair making adjustments to the nest as Lohraff noted they likely are preparing to lay eggs sometime next month.
For those interested in keeping tabs on eagle nests, the Missouri Department of Conservation has an eagle watch program that allows people to sign up to watch a particular nest. The program was started in 2018 by Janet Haslerig, resource scientist at Runge and the department's resident eagle expert, as Lohraff described her.
"It's just good to have more eyes on the ground," she said Saturday, as she stood near a display of bald eagle educational materials that sought to show how wide an adult's wingspan is and how much they weigh.
There's been a lot of interest in the program, Haslerig said, noting she's seen more than 100 new applicants in the last two months.
Jihwan Kim, a visiting scholar from South Korea at the University of Missouri in Columbia, attended the morning event with his son at the recommendation of a friend. Kim said the pair really enjoyed the event, despite the cold. It was the first time either of them had seen a bald eagle in person.
For more information on Runge and the available programming, both outdoor and virtual, call the Runge Nature Center at 573-526-5544, or visit mdc.mo.gov/centralevents.