Twenty minutes north of where my wife and I currently live is the dual city of Sauk Prairie, a collective township composed of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac that resides along the western banks of the Wisconsin River. Home to about 8,000 people, Sauk Prairie exists at a confluence of geography, history, and culture that rivals any other town in the state. Long before the founding of either, the neighboring hills were home to the indigenous Sauk people. Just outside the city limits (along Highway 78) you can visit Wisconsin Heights battlefield where Chief Black Sparrow Hawk led 70 men against 700 militiamen led by then-Colonel Henry Dodge in the penultimate conflict of the Black Hawk War.
That war pushed the Sauk from their native lands and opened it to Euro-American settlement, and by the 1840s both Sauk City and Prairie du Sac became established communities. The German-settled Sauk and the English-Yankee-settled Sac quickly became rivals and fought to control the post office, high school, and bridge that crossed the river, all told with good wit by August Derleth in his treatise of the Wisconsin River. Derleth, a native son of Sauk City, became its de-facto historian through a series of memoirs and fictional accounts of life in Sauk Prairie, most notably his Walden’s West and the lesser known but eminently more readable Wind Over Wisconsin. Today the Highway 12 bridge into Sauk City is given his name, as well as a park overlooking the river.
Today the cities are cooperative rather than antagonistic, and driving along Water Street its difficult to tell where one community ends and the other begins. Sauk Prairie is the home to the original Culver’s burger joint and the awesomely satisfying La Mexicana diner. It is home to the Prairie du Sac dam, which props up the Lake Wisconsin flowage and has been providing power to the region for a hundred years. The summer Cow Chip Parade has become a local icon, such that real estate listings proudly proclaim “this property of located along the Cow Chip Parade route!” Along its southern margin is a nice stretch of wadable water that is great smallmouth fishing in late summer through fall. It’s large enough to be self-sufficient and still small enough that it avoids the traps of the Madison metro area.
With all that Sauk Prairie continues to surprise me, as it did when I learned that it was a prime location for bald eagle-watching. An otherwise solitary bird the rest of the year, eagles congregate together near open water in the dead of winter in search of food. Due to the presence of warm water discharges near the dam, Sauk Prairie has one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in Wisconsin during winter. The Ferry Bluff Eagle Council, a non-profit group based in Sauk Prairie, has an overlook located in town that is staffed by volunteers with spotting scopes on the weekend.
There weren’t any bald eagles near the overlook this past Sunday when my wife and I visited, but the dam’s warm water provided perfect conditions for activity. Pulling up to the parking we spotted one immature bird on an ice shelf in the heart of the river. I counted another eleven roosting in naked branches along the shoreline. Add two or three more that occasionally appeared in flight, circling the river in search of lunch, and the total number of birds was somewhere near 14-15.
We returned this morning to grab some pictures. We are far from photographers, but between the two of us we managed some okay shots which I’m sharing below. (Note that only some of the birds have the iconic white plumage on their heads and tails: until they reach adulthood at around five years of age, immature eagles have drab brown feathers).
According to the volunteer we talked to at the overlook, eagles should remain in their winter quarters through February and possibly into March if the weather stays cold. Considering the winter we’ve had thusfar I’d say they’ll be around for a while yet. If you do go yourself, know that you should stay inside your car at all times to avoid upsetting the birds (you are allowed to walk about at the overlook, however). For more information, check out the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council’s website.