Amidst the murmur of the eager spectators strolling around and looking at the many wildlife exhibits at the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center near Yankton, South Dakota, three avian performers await their moment in the spotlight.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ “Bald Eagle Days” weekend-long celebration has attracted people from all over the world since it started in the 1990s, when bald eagles were still on the endangered species list. The negative degree temperatures felt earlier in the week across the Midwest had finally reversed just in time for this year’s event, held Feb. 1 through Feb. 3, 2019, for a total of 10 live bird demonstrations.
Park Ranger Karla Zeutenhorst, who has been with the Corps of Engineers for 30 years, (15 of those at the visitor center), coordinated the event and introduced guest presenters Savannah Judson and Taylor Smith, education directors from Saving Our Avian Resources, and Alex Lynott with the Sioux County Conservation Board of Iowa, who also volunteers with SOAR.
According to Zeutenhorst, the program was first started as a way for people to come in to understand and appreciate the birds.
“They started bringing in raptor rehabilitators who came and did these programs on the weekends”, said Zeutenhorst. “Well, it has just boomed in popularity. People absolutely love these programs, and when the eagles came off the endangered species list in 2007, we decided we were going to keep doing it because it was such a popular program and it’s still a way for people to come in and appreciate raptors in general, and especially the eagles, which we see a lot of here at Gavins Point Dam.”
Seeing the visitor center evolve over the years has given Zeutenhorst the benefit of perspective about her job.
“My favorite part about working here is the people. We get people in this visitor center from literally all over the world, and just to meet these people—they’re so excited to be here, that enthusiasm rubs off on you.”
With all the changes that have taken place in the center over the years, Zeutenhorst looks forward to Bald Eagle Days because of the joy it brings to her.
“I love watching the kids’ reactions when they see the birds. You get this look on their face of first they must be just a little bit afraid, especially when an eagle comes out and flaps its wings, but then they just get this sparkle in their eye and a big smile on their face, they get so excited about it.”
Zeutenhorst’s love of animals came at an early age and after high school, she thought she might become a veterinarian. She ultimately decided to pursue a degree in fisheries and wildlife biology at Iowa State. She’s doing a job she loves and she appreciates the unique qualities the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center has.
“I think this center is really neat because it tells the story of an entire river system. This is the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center, but we tell the story of the entire Missouri River and this is the first visitor center that I’ve ever seen that tells the story of one of our two major rivers in the United States, and I really enjoy that part of it.”
Zeutenhorst points out that it is important for the Corps of Engineers to educate the public about what we do because for the Missouri River, for example, the Corps has eight major missions it manages for the waterway.
“When you see somebody who has some misconceptions about the agency, and me being able to talk to them and actually help them understand what we do, that makes my job worthwhile.”
Despite the event’s name, bald eagles have not always been the only birds to headline. This year, in addition to a bald eagle, the raptor rehabilitators provided demonstrations and lectures about peregrine falcons and owls.
The Corps of Engineers has a rich history of protecting and being a custodian of natural resources and “Bald Eagle Days” is just one example. To learn more about the Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, visit our website at https://www.nwo.usace.army.mil/. For more information about Gavins Point Dam and the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center, visit https://www.nwo.usace.army.mil/Missions/Dam-and-Lake-Projects/Missouri-River-Dams/Gavins-Point/.
Click here to watch a short video about Bald Eagle Days.