With the balmy temperatures on Sunday, people weren’t the only ones seeking sun and outdoor fun.
Eagles – about 300 or more – gathered at Lake Cheney on Sunday afternoon, along with more than 100 white pelicans and thousands of Mergansers.
Wichitan Pete Janzen, author of a book on Sedgwick County birding, who photographed some of the eagles on Sunday, believes it may be an all-time high.
“We individually counted over 290 bald eagles today,” Janzen wrote in an e-mail Sunday night to The Eagle. “I am sure we missed many more birds. ... This is the largest concentration of bald eagles at Cheney that I am aware of, and I have a considerable amount of historical data to substantiate that statement. Many larger counts have gone unrecorded but even with that in mind, the 85 I saw on Jan. 12, 2014 at Cheney was already what I had considered to be a new all-time ‘high count’ for this species ... anywhere in Sedgwick, Reno or Kingman Counties.”
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The reason may be a combination of migration and all the right circumstances coming together at once.
As the lake thawed in Sunday’s warm temperatures, fish killed by the recent freeze floated to the top. The eagles then could reach them from the edge of the ice or pick them out of the ice. Also, crippled waterfowl – birds that hunters might have wounded but not killed – were on the lake.
“The eagles are drawn both by the large number of waterfowl (tens of thousands today) and they consume a lot of winter-killed fish from the rotting ice,” Janzen wrote. “The approaching cold front from the north may have driven more into our area, but more than likely these are birds that are returning from points south to reach breeding grounds in the northern states and provinces.”
The eagles migrate from the northern Great Lakes to Kansas lakes and rivers, where they search for open water, fish and waterfowl. When Kansas lakes freeze, they look for food along rivers, including the Arkansas River in downtown Wichita. They wander extensively during the winter – in response to weather, open water and food supplies.
The eagles, which have wingspans between 6 and 8 feet, usually stay in Wichita’s downtown area until the end of February or early March. Typically, bald eagles will lay their eggs in February if they do mate.
Janzen wrote in his e-mail that on Sunday he used a cellphone with a spotting scope to take photographs.
“I should clarify that without a scope, the casual observer would probably have only seen about 150 bald eagles – we have powerful spotting scopes and were basically able to double that.”
He counted 30 eagles at the west shore boat ramp, another 70 or more at West Toadstool Loop, 40 or more at Hobie Beach and 114 at Wichita Point.
Will they be there on Monday?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Eagles are wild creatures and can leave on a whim. Strong 30 to 50 mph winds from the north were expected to blast the area into Monday, along with freezing temperatures.
“They just happened to be in a good place (on Sunday) where the conditions were right for them to refuel,” Janzen said.