WABASHA, MINN.

The eagles were everywhere Monday -- hunkering in trees, scavenging dead fish on gray river ice and soaring high above the rugged Mississippi River Valley in southeastern Minnesota.

The spring migration brought eagles -- and eagle watchers -- to the river in what has become a rite of spring. March is prime eagle-viewing season, and spotting our national emblem isn't difficult. I counted almost 50 during a jaunt down Hwy. 61 from Red Wing to Wabasha and back.

Near Reads Landing, I pulled my car over and watched 15 to 20 eagles -- fully plumed mature birds as well as youngsters not yet decked out in white regalia -- gather on the ice of Lake Pepin. Soon spectators in a half dozen cars, armed with binoculars and cameras, joined me.

"Oh, my gosh,'' a woman gasped as she looked up and spotted another five eagles gliding overhead.

How easy are they to see? Earlier, in Lake City, an eagle rested pensively in a large tree next to busy Hwy. 61, across from a Burger King, giving the lunch crowd a bird's eye view.

Big-time comeback

Spotting an eagle in Minnesota wasn't always this easy. Chemicals, including the pesticide DDT, knocked the bald eagle population to dangerous levels in the 1960s, and only about 50 breeding pairs nested in the state then.

"That was the low point,'' said Carrol Henderson, Department of Natural Resources non-game wildlife program supervisor. The high point? Possibly today. Eagles not only have rebounded, they have expanded their traditional range. Officials estimate Minnesota now has about 2,300 breeding pairs and several thousand additional immature birds.

"We probably have 8,000-plus eagles in the state,'' Henderson said. That makes us No. 1 in the lower 48. "It's absolutely incredible how they've adapted. They have scattered to non-forested regions of the state. We once considered them a wilderness species, and now they're nesting in back yards, literally.''

Some of the eagles I spotted along the Mississippi are nesting there, but others are passing through, following open water to northern Minnesota and Canada. While eagles can be found along the Mississippi year-round, the next few weeks remain prime time to see large numbers, Henderson said.

Eagle Center action

You're guaranteed to see eagles, up close, at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha. I found the center's executive director, Jeff Worrell, outside, with Wasaka, a 4-year-old bald eagle tethered to his wrist. Wasaka is one of four bald eagles at the center, which also has a golden eagle.

The eagles were either injured or sick, and though rehabilitated, their maladies prevent them from being returned to the wild.

"Wasaka had a tumor in her left eye when she was found,'' said Worrell.

The center has become a major tourist attraction for Wabasha (population: 2,500) since it opened three years ago. After the tumor was removed, the bird was blind in that eye, making her unable to survive in the wild.

Instead of being euthanized, she now helps educate visitors.

There is plenty of educating to do. Last year, more than 90,000 people found their way to the center, which sits on the Mississippi overlooking a federal wildlife refuge. Forty active eagle nests are within a 20-mile radius. In the winter, the river remains ice-free near the center, keeping eagles there year-round. The birds' spring migration northward, and their ready visibility before trees leaf-out, makes March the center's busiest month. The place was bustling even on a weekday.

"The displays and education we provide are nice, but it's the eagles they come for,'' Worrell said. "We give people a chance to really inspect them. It's a life-changer for a lot of people.''

The allure of eagles

So what is it about bald eagles that so mesmerizes people?

They're huge, with more than a 5-foot wingspan. They're spectacularly beautiful. They're predators.

"They're the baddest dudes in the sky,'' Worrell said. "They represent power, majesty and honor.''

And, of course, America.

Worrell tells of the elderly visitor to the center, a World War II veteran, who stepped into the room where the live eagles are displayed."Tears streamed down his face,'' Worrell said. After a while, the man composed himself, stood tall and crisply saluted the bird, then walked out.

"He said the sight of that eagle just brought back the memories of his lost comrades,'' Worrell said. "The emotions came flooding out.''

Eagles do that to people.

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com