One of the best, if not the best, places to observe American bald eagles in Nebraska is below Kingsley Dam and Lake McConaughy, which are located on the North Platte River near the community of Ogallala, Neb.
In 1988 Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District opened its Johnson #2 Power Plant located south of Lexington to the public to view the collection of up to 60 bald eagles fishing and loafing in the tailrace of that plant. Rodger Knaggs, Kingsley Dam superintendent said, “Come to McConaughy, we have more eagles than that!” He was right (as he usually is).
So, in 1990 Central opened a second viewing facility, a converted house trailer, along the shore of Lake Ogallala (the small regulating reservoir situated below Kingsley Dam). The Kingsley Viewing Center proved to be as popular as the Johnson #2 location, and when a summer storm destroyed the trailer, the Central Board of Directors authorized the construction of a permanent facility at the site. The Kingsley Eagle Viewing Center has been open to the public every year (except during 2009) for the viewing of eagles in the trees and on the ice of Lake Ogallala.
Viewing was unsurpassed during the ’90s; however, the drought of 2000–07 altered the extent and timing of the use of the Kingsley Hydro Plant, and as a result the number of eagles that could be seen from the Center dropped off.
The eagles collect below the plant because of the abundant supply of fish making their way from Lake McConaughy through the plant to Lake Ogallala. Many different species of fish make the journey, but it is the alewife and gizzard shad that seem to be most important to the eagles. During the cold months of winter, the fish attempt to leave Lake McConaughy. The only way to do so is through the plant, which in reality is not a great idea. Lake McConaughy, at full pool, is about 140-feet deep. The fish pass from the bottom of the big lake, under the dam and through the power plant. They are then expelled into Lake Ogallala at a depth of 40 feet. The rapid change of 100 feet in depth causes rapid expansion of gasses within the fish. This can injure or kill the fish. In addition, the fish must navigate through the spinning turbine blades of the Hydro. It is slice-and-dice time.
Winter is a time of stress for most species. The eagles typically migrate from areas north to Nebraska and to Lake McConaughy because it is usually still warm enough to provide open water where the eagles can find their favorite food, fish, and their second favorite food, injured waterfowl.
Finding enough food is very important for the birds. They will leave here in late March and early April and fly north to their nesting grounds. The level of fitness the birds exhibit when they leave Nebraska is critical in their upcoming reproductive success. Thus, the time of most stress on the birds is the same time in which they must gain weight and prepare for reproduction. The sheer abundance of fish passing through the Kingsley Power Plant provides an excess of food, ensuring a high level of fitness for the birds, and thus large numbers of eagles, which are typically loners and somewhat antisocial, can be found there each morning.
During the ’90s, we looked at the connection between the number of eagles that could be seen from the Kingsley Eagle Viewing Center and the fish that were passing through the plant. At that time the plant took cooling water for the generator from the water passing through the turbines. Fish that were drawn into this uptake pipe were filtered before entering into the cooling coils of the plant. These filters had to be emptied, usually on a daily basis, and during peak movement, multiple times a day. We measured the weight of fish removed from the screens and compared that with the number of eagles seen from the Center. The graph on this page clearly shows the relationship between the movement of fish and the concentration of eagles.
As noted earlier, the drought altered the timing and regularity of operating the Hydro at Lake McConaughy, and the number of fish passing through the plant was reduced; as a result, the densities of eagles dropped off. In 2010 the supply of water in the North Platte system returned to normal and to even above normal flows, which allows Central to operate the Hydro Plant in a way very similar to the way the plant was operated from 1994–99. In addition I can assure you that after doing underwater visual inspections of the facilities at Lake McConaughy and Lake Ogallala last month, the supply of fish passing through the plant is once again in tremendous numbers. I fully expect the number of eagles seen below the dam to return to those densities seen in the 1990s.
Those densities were impressive. Since 1992, we have documented an average peak of 111 eagles per day seen from the Kingsley Eagle Viewing Center, with more than 100 eagles seen on 106 occasions and more than 200 eagles on 21 occasions. In 1994 the Viewing Center posted Nebraska’s record number of bald eagles seen from a single location, at a single time, at 368!
The best time to view the eagles is typically in late January and February (the 368 were seen on Feb. 18); however, in real nature, unlike the various nature TV programs, the number you will see on a given day during a given month is entirely up to the birds, and it varies greatly.
Dr. John Janovy Jr. of the University of Nebraska in his writings about Keith County talks about the “Keeper of the Keys.” This is the plant or animal that best exemplifies the area. At Lake McConaughy starting in January through ice-out in March, the “Keeper of the Keys” has to be the American bald eagle, but, even if there are not 300-plus bald eagles, there may be trumpeter swans, rafts of ducks and other waterfowl to see, as well as individuals from the other 300-plus species that have been documented at the lake. It’s a great place to see bald eagles. It’s a great place to see all kinds of birds, and if nothing else, it’s a great place to just spend the day. Come on out. We’ll have the heat on and Gabe Wilson, Central’s resident birdman at Lake McConaughy, will have the coffee ready…
Several factors influence the number of eagles seen from the facilities on any given day, including climatic conditions, ice coverage on area bodies of water, how many eagles are wintering in the area and whether the hydroplants are online. The best viewing time is normally earlier in the day. There is no charge to visit the facilities, and group tours may be scheduled for nonweekend days.
During January and February 2012, the J-2 Power Plant will be open on Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m.–2 p.m. CST. The hydroplant is located south of Lexington near the intersection of county roads 749 and 750. The Kingsley Eagle Viewing Center at Lake McConaughy will be open on Saturdays and Sundays 8 a.m.–4 p.m. MST, and a special presentation by Raptor Recovery Nebraska’s Blake Hatfield on raptors will be held at 10 a.m. MST on Jan. 7. For more information about eagles and viewing opportunities, visit the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District’s website at www.cnppid.com or call (308) 995-8601.
Image Credit: Bald eagles vie for a fish on the ice in Keith County, Neb., Jan. 27, 2008. (Jorn Olsen)