Tag Archives: Bloomington

Hiking to the Eagle Hacking Tower


The 1985 hacking tower at Lake Monroe.

Bald eagle. CC.

Bloomington, IN–The sky spit bits of snow as temperatures in the 20s made me pull up my hood over an insulated hat. Other hikers were wearing face masks and balaclavas. I decided to take wool mittens that could pull down to expose my fingers for photos, slung a pair of binoculars over my neck, and tightened the laces on my insulated high-top hiking boots. I remembered silk underwear and a “smoke ring” funnel scarf made of ox musk yarn from Alaska. But without a backpack, I had to choose between a spotting scope and a hiking pole as our highlight hike during Eagles Over Monroe weekend. Next time the backpack would be another staple in the car trunk, along with extra mittens, hats, gloves, and scarves.

Our group of 20 slowly snaked along an overgrown field, headed to the hacking tower, built at Lake Monroe in 1985 to reintroduce the bald eagle to Indiana. Jill Vance, interpretative naturalist at Lake Monroe, led the group. We needed her for directions and details, or course, but also because the public isn’t allowed here from October through April because it is a waterfowl resting area.

Soon we were stumbling over sticks, brushing up against brambles, even hopping over a small creek. Unfortunately, one hiker slipped and fell into the water, mud covering his entire leg and coat. I worried he might get hypothermia in the cold weather, but he was determined to see the hacking tower.

When eagles first learn to fly–or hack–they develop a bond to the location. Eagles return to their hacking site to build their own nests as parents, when they’re about 4-5 years old. The hacking tower built in 1985 on the North Fork of Stillwater Marsh on Lake Monroe. This site was chosen for a reintroduction program due to the close proximity to water, so the birds could fish, as well as stands of trees for building nests. The tower accommodated 5-6 week old eaglets brought from Wisconsin and the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Using two locations and the average eaglet hacking at 13 weeks, the program could hosted two hacking groups per year through 1989. By then, eagles were coming back to Lake Monroe to nest, and the program was deemed a success. The tower was left to fall into disrepair.

We looked at photos Vance brought, showing the construction of the tower, when telephone poles donated by Southern Indiana Bell Telephone were pounded into the ground near the water. The poles were wrapped in metal to keep predators from climbing up the poles to get at the chicks, and an old staircase stopped several feel above the ground for the same reason. Vance said the biologists would bring a stepladder to get the first tower stairs.

As the eaglets fledge, they often have a lot of false starts, Vance explained, spiraling down to the ground. One eaglet seemed to do a lot of fluttering down without flying back up. A biologist would pick up the bird and take it up the stairs back to the nest. About the fifth time it did this, the bird didn’t wait for the biologist to take it back upstairs–it went up the stairs by itself.

The wildlife biologists hid in this blind during the 1985-1989 hacking seasons to observe the eagles in their nest.

We hiked a little farther down the overgrown road to a tower leaning precariously in the water. This was where the biologists hid and could observe the birds. As we looked at it, an eagle soared overhead. Not far across the marsh, a bald eagle’s nest was visible in the trees. Eagle nests are about five feet across, so they can be easy to spot.

This was one of 12-14 eagles’ nests that are scattered around the edge of the lake. The 1985 program goal was to achieve 20 nests in the state of Indiana by 2020. There are now more than 200 throughout the state.

Vance also pointed out a telephone pole far out in the water. These were brought in by helicopter and dropped into the lakebed to serve as perching poles for the eagles. This is one that still remains, and eagles can be spotted there.

As we stood gazing over the water, the bald eagle returned, swooping into the nest and remained. It was easily visible by binoculars, and some hikers offered the use of their scopes to see the nesting eagle close up. My heart fluttered a bit. Some things are worth the wait.



Eagle Watching at Lake Monroe

Boat ramp at Allens Creek, Lake Monroe

Bloomington, IN–The ice over Lake Monroe at Allens Creek shimmered in the late afternoon sun. A female belted kingfisher chirped nearby, clearly annoyed at the visitors to her fishing spot. Soon, she ignored them and returned to diving in a small break in the ice, seeking dinner.

Spotting a belted kingfisher at Allens Creek, Lake Monroe

Most visitors to the 10,750-acre Lake Monroe usually come in summer for boating or relaxing on the beaches. The lake is actually a reservoir, created by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1965 for flood control and is now a water and recreation source for the city of Bloomington, Indiana.

In winter, though, the lake’s few visitors find peace, calm, and sometimes bald eagles and golden eagles. A “Citizen Scientist” program sponsored by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources recruits local volunteers to look for eagles along the lake and record activities. In the first 20 days of official spotting in 2016, volunteers recorded 62 sightings.

While Paynetown SRA off SR 446 is the biggest summer recreation spot on Lake Monroe, it is not the spot with the highest eagle sightings. Aptly named Eagle Pointe on the lake’s south end near The Fourwinds Inn yielded the most spottings—9 eagles—in December. Two volunteers reported on December 9: “Two adults in nest. One, presumably the female, arranging large sticks. At one point both birds gave us the direct eagle eye visible through the spotting scope! One adult flew to our side of the bay and perched in tree about 200 yards away.”

While four sightings of eagles had also been made at the Allens Creek boat ramp early in December, the clear day later in the month yielded just the kingfisher and a heron wading at a far edge. After an hour in the warm setting sun, we loaded up our car and started to head out when a big bird flew low over the water, seeking prey. It looked a lot like an eagle, but was more likely an osprey, and positive identification wasn’t possible at such a quick glance.

Birders can spy eagles on the lake at any time, but the easiest winter sightings have been February through March. Binoculars or a spotting scope are necessary for getting a good look.

Interested in help finding eagles at Lake Monroe? January 27-29, 2017 is the 17th annual Eagles Over Monroe weekend at The Fairwinds Inn. For just $10, you can take eagle hikes, hear from raptor experts—and for an additional fee—have lunch with eagles, which is sponsored by the resort and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Beginning birders and families are welcome to the weekend event, and experts will be posted with spotting scopes along trails to help identify birds.

Frozen marsh at Saltwater Creek observation area, Lake Monroe