Eagles Camera Hatches Decorah Attraction

By Orlan Love, Reporter

The Decorah eagles, as seen Tuesday, February 21, 2011. (Image from USTREAM video)

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By Kara Kelly

DECORAH, Iowa -- The Decorah Fish Hatchery is becoming a tourist destination in much the same manner as the “Field of Dreams” in Dyersville — through emotional attachments made through electronic media.

While the movie inspired throngs to descend upon its setting northeast of Dyersville, the Raptor Resource Project’s web-based bald eagle cam is drawing fans from around the country to the nest tree in which the camera is mounted, just across the road from the hatchery.

“That’s a very good analogy,” said Randy Uhl, Winneshiek County economic development director, one of more than 100 people attending the dedication Friday of a new visitor center built to accommodate the flood of tourists descending upon the home of the world-famous eagles.

“It is an emotional attachment,” said Sandy Liles of Geneva, Ill., making her first pilgrimage to the nest tree on Friday. “When you watch them grow up on the Internet, they become your eagles.”

Second-time pilgrim Heidi Sells of St. Paul, Minn., said she comes for love of the eagles and fellowship with like-minded people she has met on line during viewing sessions.

Sells, who recently lost her job, said an online eagle friend sent her a check to cover gasoline for her Decorah visit this weekend.

Both Liles and Sells said their visit Friday more than lived up to their expectations.

A giddy Liles said she and friend Sam Bonafede, also of Geneva, saw all three young eagles up close on the ground. They and Sells then got to meet Bob Anderson, the Raptor Resource Project director who masterminded the Decorah eagle cam. Then on top of all that, Willard Holthaus, on whose property the nest tree grows, invited the three of them into his garage for a personal showing of the equipment used to monitor the nest.

Anderson said visitors to the nest site often display a sense of reverence similar to that exhibited by “Field of Dreams” enthusiasts. “It is like Mecca to many of them,” he said.

Because the young eagles have fledged and now spend little time in the nest, the camera will be turned off for the year this weekend, he said.

Brenda Balk, tourism director for the local economic development group, said the hatchery posted a United States map in the visitors center along with push pins to enable visitors to note their hometowns. “We had visitors from 30 states in three days,” she said.

“Without the eagle cam we would not be standing here today,” Department of Natural Resources Director Chuck Gipp, a Decorah resident, said during the dedication ceremony.

“Because of it, this is not just a fish hatchery; it is a tourist destination in northeast Iowa,” Gipp said.

Gipp said the $300,000 visitor center, built with locally quarried limestone and 8-inch square beams incorporating mortise and tenon joinery, is the first Iowa facility at a state operation built entirely with money raised by a Friends organization.

Hatchery manager Brian Malaise praised the Friends of the Decorah Fish Hatchery for the group’s energy and ambition. “This all started with a plan to upgrade restroom facilities and took off from there,” he said.

Friends of the Decorah Fish Hatchery and one of its leaders, Peggy Beatty, were to be honored for their volunteer service later Friday in Cedar Falls by Gov. Terry Branstad, Gipp said.

Beatty, known as “the T-shirt lady,” has spearheaded the Friends’ effort to raise funds through the sale of T-shirts commemorating the hatchery.

Beatty said the sale of more than 2,400 T-shirts featuring images of fish and the Decorah eagles has brought about $24,000 to the fundraising effort.

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