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Many people might go their entire lives without seeing a bald eagle, our majestic American emblem, in the wild.

But if you live within driving distance of the Upper Mississippi River, that's not a problem — especially this time of year. Each winter, the Upper Mississippi plays host to hundreds of bald eagles that are migrating to and from their breeding grounds. They join the so-called "resident eagles" that always live along the river to create an impressive sight, particularly at the end of February and beginning of March: Some viewers have reported seeing as many as 30 in one place.

Staff at the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, which spans the river floodplain from Wabasha, Minn., to Rock Island, Ill., say a combination of habitat restoration projects and the banning of the pesticide DDT are allowing eagles to flourish. This year is no exception.

"They're exploding. They're everywhere. There are so many this year," said Hallie Schulz, visitor services manager for the refuge.

Why do bald eagles like the Upper Mississippi?

An abundant food source is the driving factor for the location of any species, Schulz said. In this case, the river delivers. The bald eagles get their pick of fresh fish and sometimes also feed on small ducks and other creatures.

The Mississippi's floodplain forests provide places for them to perch and nest.

The eagles also like the Black River, which meets the Mississippi near La Crosse, Wis., because it's not as wide and they can keep a closer eye on their possible meal from the trees, Schulz said.

Of course, it's not just eagles that use the river. More than 325 bird species traverse the Mississippi Flyway during migration each year, according to Audubon.

What are the best spots for eagle-watching along the Mississippi?

There are overlooks all along the river and chances are, if you pull over at one and wait long enough, you'll see some eagles, Schulz said.

But there are more popular spots, too. Just south of Exit 3 on Interstate 90 in La Crosse, there's an eagle-watching wayside with viewing scopes. French Island, in between the Mississippi and Black rivers, is another option. And eagles particularly love the river's Pool 9, Schulz said, which extends from Genoa to Lynxville, Wis. If you want to see nesting eagles, Pool 9 is your best bet — an estimated 300 to 400 eagle nests exist there.

People who want to more closely track where eagles have been spotted can use eBird, an online database of bird observations created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You can view "hotspots" where a number of eagles have been observed anywhere on the river.

If you can't get out to the river yourself this year, there are still ways to watch. Try the Raptor Resource Project's Mississippi River flyway cam, positioned on Lake Onalaska, or the National Eagle Center's Eaglewatch cam, overlooking the river in Wabasha.

The best time to see bald eagles is between 8 and 11 a.m., as they move in to actively feed along the river, and a few hours before dusk, as they return to their roosts, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Use the same caution you would with any wildlife species and don't get too close.

Eagles gather on the Black River near where it meets the Mississippi River on Feb. 14 in La Crosse, Wis.
Eagles gather on the Black River near where it meets the Mississippi River on Feb. 14 in La Crosse, Wis.

Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

What should I be looking for?

Typically, the eagles huddle on river ice near open water.

But this winter, which is shaping up to be the warmest on record for much of the Upper Midwest, there's little ice to be found. Birdwatchers can look for eagles on the river's banks, in trees and soaring through the sky in large groups, Schulz said. The groups are known as a convocation, an aerie, even a congress.

If you see a brown eagle, don't assume it's a golden eagle or another type of bird, she said. It's likely just a juvenile. Bald eagles' heads don't turn completely white until they're about 5 years old.

Madeline Heim is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about environmental issues in the Mississippi River watershed and across Wisconsin.