Flying With the Eagles By Bob McDaniel
A couple of years ago, I heard that the World Bird Sanctuary was looking for volunteer pilots to fly “eagle census flights” along the Mississippi River. It sounded like fun, but work and family commitments didn’t leave much time for volunteer flying. The Sanctuary put out a call for pilots again last fall and I sent them my name and qualifications. Thanks to Carmelo Turdo’s AeroExperience blog, plenty of pilots stepped forward this year and they would be calling them in the order they volunteered. My name finally made it to the top of the list in February and I got the call to go flying.
The flight was planned for Friday, Feb. 13th, which turned out to be a nice day for eagle watching. Although it was quite cold, only 19 degrees at show time, the relatively calm winds and high overcast cloud deck made for a perfect eagle counting flight.
They only make census flights early in the morning, when the eagles are most active, looking for their breakfast. That required rolling out of bed at 0600 to get to the airport and have the plane ready to go by 0730. I met Jeffrey Meshach, Director of the World Bird Sanctuary, his assistant and an intern at Ideal Aviation where we did a quick safety briefing and discussed the route of flight and their counting procedures.
We were in the air before 0800 and headed toward the locks at Alton where we would begin our count. We dropped down to 700 feet above the water and flew over the Illinois side of the river all the way to a point about 10 miles north of Quincy, Illinois. My job was to closely follow the varying contour of the winding riverbank, staying over the water about 200 feet from the riverbank, while maintaining a speed of no more than 90 to 100 mph. That meant throttling way back and almost constantly changing the bank angle to maintain the proper position along the winding river.
Preflight planning the night before included precise fuel burn and weight and balance planning, to ensure we were one pound under my Skyhawk’s maximum gross weight, while carrying enough fuel to complete the flight with adequate reserves. I also studied the route and made a log of ATIS, AWOS, Approach Control, Tower, and Unicom frequencies for all the nearby airports on both sides of the river along the way. Although we touched the edge of St. Louis Regional’s airspace and were very close to the traffic pattern at St. Charles, we had no air traffic conflicts as everyone else was flying well above our cruising altitude.
Of course, at that altitude, you must keep a constant watchful eye for engine out landing areas, remembering that in some areas the river bluff on our side of the river was as much as 500 feet above the river and heavily wooded. Sometimes the best choice was on our side of the river and, at other times, the best choice was a glide to the flat muddy bottom land on the opposite side. There’s not much room for error when the river’s over a mile wide and your power off gliding distance is barely a mile from 700 feet without a headwind.
Very quickly after reaching the census area, the observers began calling out eagle sightings while the director marked them down on the very detailed river terrain map he carried with him on a clipboard. Special attention was given to nests they had observed on previous flights that had been pre-marked on their maps. They marked every location where an eagle was spotted and they were categorized as adults or juveniles and flying or perched. I spotted five eagles that were flying directly in front of my windscreen on three separate occasions. All of those moved gracefully off to our side and gave us a casual glance as we flew by them. We only had to take evasive action once to avoid a large flock of snow geese flying directly in front of us at our exact same altitude. In addition to several large flocks of geese, we saw many flocks of ducks, gulls, pelicans, and even a large flock of wild turkeys on the ground below us.
As I mentioned earlier, the high overcast made for smooth flying conditions. However, when we were flying alongside the steep river cliffs and adjacent rolling hills, they did create some gentle rolling mechanical turbulence. Those gentle rotors, accompanied by the constantly changing bank, took their toll on the intern who was a first-time flyer. About an hour into the 3-1/2 hour flight, she asked how much longer we would be flying. I took the hint and handed her a “sick sack” which she proceeded to fill about 10 minutes later. It’s rather difficult to count eagles with your head inside a white plastic bag. Fortunately, she only assumed that position twice more during the flight.
After flying along the Illinois side of the river for 153 miles, we made a gentle turn toward the Missouri side of the river and continued the count as we wound our way back down the river toward Alton. By the time we reached the end of the census area, we had counted 385 eagles, with each of their positions accurately mapped, and had logged 3.4 hours of flying time. Although it had been a long time since I had made a flight of that duration, the time seemed to pass much faster. There was certainly nothing boring about the flight. It was a very enjoyable day.
The World Bird Sanctuary has been doing aerial surveys of bald eagles along the Mississippi River throughout the winter for over 30 years. The Sanctuary is located in Valley Park, Missouri, on the opposite side of the road from Lone Elk Park. It is open from 8 to 5 every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas, with free entry and free parking. There’s something there for everyone with free seasonal shows, nature trails, educational programs and picnic pavilions. Their live displays of bald eagles, owls, hawks, falcons, vultures, parrots, reptiles and other birds and critters are popular with all ages. Visit their web site at www.worldbirdsanctuary.org for more information.