Take a tour of the Owl Center in Houston and the Eagle Center in Wasbasha

July 12, 2019

Owls are among our most fascinating birds, both to watch and to hear. They have long evoked curiosity in people, due to their secretive and often nocturnal habits, fierce predatory behavior, and interesting appearance. Many people might be surprised by how common owls are; it just takes a bit of knowledge and searching to find them; and the effort is worthwhile. Despite their feeding habits, bald eagles are graceful and fascinating creatures. At five years old, these birds seek a lifelong partner by performing courtship calls and aerial displays, including a cartwheel maneuver known as the death spiral. The spectacle begins at a high altitude as the eagles lock their talons while tumbling down, breaking apart just before hitting the ground. The dangerous display exhibits the fitness levels of the eagles, a factor in choosing a partner.

International Owl Center (126 E. Cedar St. – Houston, MN) Houston’s International Owl Center is the only all-owl education center in the United States. By focusing just on owls, the Houston Center has the luxury of going far more in-depth about owls, than do raptor centers. The IOC explores cultural, conservational, and global aspects of owls, while simultaneously educating the public on the local species. The goal at the International Owl Center is to make the world a better place for owls, primarily through education and research. The staff presents educational programs, using live owls to teach people more about owls, how humans impact them, and how to live an owl-friendly life. People can visit the center or arrange to have a live owl brought to them for their programs. “We at the International Owl Center stage programs for many schools and libraries, and also for adult bus trips, colleges, nursing homes, birding groups, and other adult learners,” said Executive Director Karla Bloem.

It all started with Alice, the Great Horned Owl. She fell out of her nest in Antigo, WI in 1997 and permanently injured her left wing. She came to Houston to work with Karla as an educational ambassador owl in 1998; in preparation for starting the Houston Nature Center. The Nature Center is Houston’s “red carpet” to the Root River Trail, so it is also about tourism. Once it opened in 2001, Alice was the star of the show. In 2003, Bloem started a Festival of Owls as a celebration of Alice’s hatch day in late winter. “We had a surprisingly large response and within a few years, people were flying in from around the country, so we expanded the Festival to an international scope,” Bloem said. When the event started attracting more than 1,000 people, Bloem realized there was no owl education center in the United States…so the International Owl Center was created. It opened as a non-profit organization four years ago in 2015. Alice is now 22 years old and was given official permission to retire last fall, by the Minnesota DNR and US Fish and Wildlife Service. The center’s biggest event of the year is the International Festival of Owls, held annually the first weekend in March. The staff also celebrates International Owl Awareness Day, the first weekend in August. Each summer, the folks hold a capital fundraiser, featuring a locally-sourced artisan breakfast and live auction, in the Breakfast with Owls event. In the Fall and running through March, there is an owl prowl, designed to call in wild owls once a month; as well as a pellet dissection day, where everyone who comes to the center can dissect an owl pellet. Karla says she loves to continually learn more about owls, especially from experts throughout the world. “I also love making a difference…like when visitors tell me that they aren’t going to cut down a dead tree, or will never use mouse poison again, based on what they learned at the Owl Center.” The good people at the Center have plans to build a new venue.

Currently in site-acquisition mode, the future facility will have many large aviaries to house owls on display. The birds that are handled in programs will be housed where the public can’t see them, so they will get more down time to relax. The plan is to have several walk-through aviaries, where visitors actually navigate through the side of the aviary with nothing between them and the live, unrestrained owls; living in a vegetated habitat. The new facility will allow the business to be open seven days a week, and it will house many more species of owls. “There is so much diversity in owls. Some are day-active, some don’t have silent flight, most don’t turn their heads 270 degrees, most can’t catch prey in total darkness…so everything we’ve learned about owls doesn’t apply to all of them. As an all-owl center, we have the luxury of going into these details that are rarely, if ever, covered in books and elsewhere” – Karla Bloem.

The National Eagle Center (Downtown Wabasha, MN) The National Eagle Center is an environmental, interpretive center that is home to and cares for (among others) five permanently injured bald and golden eagles. They educate the public about eagles, raptors, the Mississippi River, and the environment, through the eagles and their stories. The Center’s mission is: connecting people with eagles in nature, history and cultures. Visitors to the Center enjoy a unique experience that puts them nose-to-beak with the live eagles, exciting daily classroom programs, two-floors of interactive exhibits, wild eagle viewing and a variety of special activities and field trips throughout the year. “Our audience is very diverse! Our circa 80,000 annual visitors come from all 50 states and an average of 115 countries; in addition to school groups, tour groups, veterans, active-adults, families with kids, and nature enthusiasts. We host daily programs at the Center, as well as travel to schools, nature centers, community events and veteran events throughout the Upper Midwest,” explained Marketing Manager Ed Hahn. Wabasha sits on a unique stretch of the Mississippi River, where the current is strong enough to maintain open water year-round. Due to that open water, Wabasha is typically a gathering spot of bald eagles during the winter months, because they still have access to their primary food source – fish.

At the height of bald eagle endangerment (the 1970s and 80s) when seeing a wild bald eagle was rare, Wabasha was one of the last places in the continental United States where a person could reliably see a bald eagle. Local birders and eagle enthusiasts would gather in Wabasha on the banks of the river during the winter to watch eagles. In 1989, that group formed Eaglewatch, Inc., the legal name for the National Eagle Center. The NEC hosts a variety of special activities and events throughout the year. In the summer months, they host a youth fishing program, Fishing on the Refuge, which provides an added-value fishing opportunity to kids aged 15 and younger (fishing license in MN not required). The Center also offers complimentary admission to active-duty military personnel and their families as a Blue Star Museum. During the Fall, the Center hosts special activities like Wabasha’s SeptOberfest Festival, which runs throughout September and October. November through April ushers-in a series of guided bald and golden eagle field trips (via bus) which are traveling classroom experiences that take guests to eagle hotspots where they can watch them through binoculars and scopes, take photos and observe eagle nests; while also learning about the habitat and other native wildlife. Finally, each weekend in March, the NEC hosts its annual SOAR with the Eagles Festival, with special programs and exhibits.

The festival is a great opportunity for visitors to meet other varieties of raptors, experience flying bird shows, enjoy cultural exhibits and meet other animals. Hahn says that some of the most satisfying things about being at the center is having the ability to share the amazing eagle ambassadors with such a wide variety of guests, on a daily basis. “The eagles really create a special connection with humans, and seeing people’s excitement at being so close to live eagles is always fun. When guests visit, it isn’t long before they are sharing their eagle stories and experience with us,” Hahn remarked. The National Eagle Center is currently preparing for a major expansion over the next 3-4 years. Current visitor demand requires that they supply more space for eagles, education and exhibits. To accommodate their growing needs, officials are planning to double the current footprint of the Center. That includes renovating the first (four) buildings (storefronts) on Main Street in downtown Wabasha, just across the alley from the Center. Despite the name “National” Eagle Center, the Wabasha establishment is a private non-profit and not part of the National Park System. The National Eagle Center is currently celebrating its 30th Anniversary in 2019. “We extend a special invitation to anyone who has never before visited the Center and the eagle ambassadors. It is a great time (2019) to re-discover the National Eagle Center if it has been a number of years since your last visit. We invite those who enjoy their experience to help sustain our important mission, through membership,” said Hahn.


By Pat Garry, Contributing Writer

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