A magnificent bald eagle swooping, soaring, diving, its aerial acrobatics silhouetted against a pale blue winter sky — there are few finer or more moving sights.
Yet the symbol of the United States almost was lost. Forty years ago, the bird was in danger of extinction across most of its range due to habitat destruction, illegal shooting and contamination of its food, largely due to use of DDT.
But the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the federal ban on DDT and conservation actions have helped the birds make what can only be called a remarkable recovery.
Bald eagles are once again thrilling onlookers, and Midlanders have front-row viewing privileges.
Nebraska counted a record number of active bald eagle nests this year: 103 as compared to 2011, when 90 were seen. Iowa's nest count was a record, too, at 222, up from 213 last year and only 76 in 1998. Each nest typically produces, on average, 1.5 eagle chicks.
The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District's two great eagle-viewing sites, both enclosed for comfort, have opened for the season, which extends until March. One site is at the J-2 hydro plant near Lexington; the other is below Kingsley Dam near Ogallala. Lucky visitors can see scores, even hundreds, of the birds sitting in trees, flying and skimming the water's surface to grab whatever's being served up for lunch by Mother Nature.
Eagles gather at those sites because the water stays ice-free during most of the winter and the fishing is fine.
Other Midlands sites also host eagles, but they may not stay as long. At Lake Manawa State Park south of Council Bluffs, for instance, it's not uncommon to see some of the birds hanging around while the water is still open, or standing around holes in the ice like ungainly ice fishermen. Likewise, on occasion the huge birds might be seen in Levi Carter Park in Omaha, Fontenelle Forest Nature Center in Bellevue and Gavins Point Dam in northeast Nebraska.
Eagle-watchers who want to try their luck might consider looking at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge near Missouri Valley, Iowa, which often hosts eagles while there are still wildfowl resting and feeding on its waters. The birds also can sometimes be seen at the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge east of Rulo, Neb. Eagles usually move on when the water freezes over.
The flight of the bald eagle is heart-stoppingly beautiful, something that every American should experience. Fortunately, that's easy enough to do in the Midlands.