Blogger Gary Engberg hauls in a perch. / Photo by Doug Stamm
Itís amazing what can happen in the outdoors after the first heavy snow and cold of the winter. After the storm and blizzard of last week, Iíve been seeing many changes with the arrival of many migrating eagles, birds, ducks, and geese. The Ferry Bluff Eagle Council started counting eagles, as it does every year, at the beginning of December. Iíve mentioned in some of my earlier columns of all the work that the FBEC does to insure that the eagles will keep returning to the Lower Wisconsin River Valley and Sauk Prairie area. The Eagle Council has been counting eagles and helping collect valuable research data for decades and this information has helped many from the DNR to local businesses, chamber of commerceís, and even our state government.
From December to the beginning of March, the Eagle Council counts eagles every other Sunday at ten different roosting sites from the Prairie du Sac Dam and to Lone Rock. I help count with Dr. Tim Moermond and Donna and Bill Stehling at the Sugarloaf roost site which is on the east side of the Wisconsin River about a mile downriver from the dam and close to the Wollerscheim Winery. As the winter progresses and we get the normal snow and cold this is a very popular roosting site for many eagles. There have been times during extreme cold and snow when over 100 eagles have been seen at this one roost site. But, this year during the first two eagle counts, there have been no eagles spotted going into the roosts in these heavily wooded valleys.
The eagle studies and local research has shown that the eagles will stay downriver near Lone Rock and in other non-traditional roost sites with some even off the river by miles like the Leland roost site at certain times of the early winter. The two roost sites closest to the Prairie du Sac Dam are the Sugarloaf and Blackhawk roosts. Eagles migrate up river toward the dam as the weather gets colder and snow covers the ground to feed on the abundant shad in the riverís open waters. Research and radio-collared eagles have shown that the eagles will roost in non-traditional roosts when the nights are warm and above freezing. But, as temperatures drop, the eagles will move and migrate to the traditional roost sites upriver. The traditional roost sites are where the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council counts its eagles.
The first eagle count had only 39 eagles counted and all were downriver near Lone Rock and off river at the Leland site. The second eagle count had 69 eagles counted with 49 eagles just at the Lone Rock roost. Again, volunteers at Sugarloaf and Blackhawk saw a few birds flying by, but none were seen roosting for the night. There are a few eagle pairs that nest on the river, but this is only a small number of the eagles.
Saturday afternoon, I took a drive around the Sauk City area and guess what? There were many eagles close to the dam and the upriver roosts. I saw over 20 eagles in just an hour of driving close to town and the traditional roost sites. In a day or two, more eagles had moved into the area and Iím sure some migrated up toward the Prairie Dam from downriver where the cold temperatures will freeze the shallow water and make feeding difficult for the eagles. This was more eagles than I had seen since last March. This is a great time for eagle viewing and Iím sure the number of eagles will keep increasing every week!
Suddenly and finally winter came with heavy snow and single digit temperatures. Living on the river, I see all kinds of wildlife, waterfowl, birds, and eagles everyday from my riverfront windows. The goose population on the Wisconsin River has risen dramatically with many more flocks landing on the riverís open water and joining the ďresidentĒ geese that stay year-round. There were diving ducks that must have been farther north and came down to find the open water. Before the stormy weather, there were a few mergansers, goldeneyes, and buffleheads on the riverís waters. But, now I was seeing flocks of ďdiversĒ, not just a few ducks here and there.
The activity in my backyard and land has become a birderís paradise. I feed birds all year long, but feeding birds in the winter is so important in their survival. Winter is tough on the birds that stay here year-round because food is hard to find and they need to eat regularly to get surviving. When there is deep snow and cold temperatures, the help you can give birds is very important. Since the storm, Iíve constantly have birds at my feeders and cleared feeding grounds. I spent over 3 hours digging out these areas around the feeders last week so that I could get at the feeders and clear some of the feeding locations. I see cardinals, blue jays, doves, nut-hatches, woodpeckers, and even crows to name a few of my winter visitors and hungry friends. The other afternoon, there were over 30 cardinals feeding at one time just before dark. Some winters when the snow is deep, I even get wild turkeys feeding on black-oil sunflower seeds outside my windows. If you can and want some great entertainment for the entire family then start feeding birds. Its fun and youíre helping birds make it through the winter.
The deep snow will help the late season bow hunter because a hunter can narrow down their hunting area because deer are not going to move far away from their food source during the cold and snow. Find where the deer feed and bed which most likely are close together and youíll have a good chance of harvesting a deer. There also is a Holiday Deer Hunt coming up for the gun hunter.
Wisconsinís first wolf hunting and trapping season just closed December 23rd. The state set the wolf quota at 201 wolves for the six wolf zones. Of these 201 wolves, 85 were given to the Native American tribes leaving 116 for the general public. All of the six zones could be closed early when they reached a number close to their quota, so there would be no over-harvest. The DNR is just learning from this first hunt and they wanted to be conservative during this first season. Zone 6 was the last zone open and it closed on Sunday, December 23rd. The other zones reached their quotas early too, so they have been closed for a week or more in some of the other zones. The season was to last from October 15 to February 28, 2013. But, there must be numerous wolves in Wisconsin to close the season two months earlier than what was to be the closing date.
The pheasant season closes December 31st and I see few hunters out on the public hunting grounds near my home. But, there is very little competition and there still are pheasants to harvest if you get out and hunt the thickest cover that you can find. Late December can bring some great hunting with pheasants looking for food, grit, and cover. The snow on the ground also shows you that there are or are not any pheasants in the area youíre hunting by their tracks. Plan to do some walking and dress warm, but the reward is easily worth it and the exercise is good for all of us.
Rabbit and squirrel hunting are still open and the snow makes tracking a cottontail much easier for the hunter. The coyote season is open all year and the snow will help the hunters in tracking these predators.
There is now ample snow for the cross country skier, the snowmobiler, and soon the ice fishermen will be out in full force. Sunday, there were 7 people ice fishing on Monona Bay near Brittingham Park in Madison. To me, this is a little early and I think there should be at least 4 inches of ice before venturing out. A six inch bluegill is not worth a ďdunkingĒ it to me.
Thereís still plenty to do in the outdoors for the hunter, the skier, the hiker, the snow-shoer, and the bird viewer. December is almost over, but many of these activities will do nothing but get better as winter progresses. Ice fishing will hopefully soon be in full swing and whatís nicer than the snow crunching under your feet as you go for a hike, glide on your cross country skis, or venture out fishing?
Enjoy winter and always be safe!
Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990ís and has fished the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), North American Walleye Association (NAWA), Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), World Walleye Association (WWA), FLW, and Mercury Nationals in the years since. Gary has hosted the Outdoor Horizons radio show weekly for 14 years in Madison on WTDY 1670 AM and WTDY 106.7 FM Saturdays at 8:05 am. and is also a correspondent for the Wisconsin State Journal for the last 12 years. Visit http://www.garyengbergoutdoors.com for more from Gary Engberg.