MONROE, Mich. — A Michigan utility has welcomed a flock of visitors to the state's biggest power plant this winter. But they aren't all that personable.
The south-flying out-of-towners — nearly 200 bald eagles — have taken up residence at DTE Energy's massive plant along Lake Erie, transforming 800 acres in Monroe into their cozy, cold-weather abode.
The birds have been a common sight these past few frigid months, patiently perching on tree branches and using their 6- to 7-foot wingspans to smoothly glide over the lake and swoop into the plant's spillway to snatch gizzard shad, their food of choice.
The iconic raptors are drawn to the plant's warm water discharge, which gives them easy access to the baitfish as well as a vast wooded area where the people-shy birds can roost in seclusion. DTE Energy has set aside the land in the back of the plant for wildlife habitat preservation and is happy to host the eagles when temperatures drop.
"People look at it as a very majestic bird," said DTE Energy wildlife biologist Matthew Shackelford, who has been tracking eagles at the plant in Monroe, about 35 miles southwest of Detroit, for a dozen years — back when there were only a handful of them wintering there.
This year, Shackelford estimates that 180 eagles are living at the plant, which is also home to deer, ducks and a number of other kinds of birds, including red-tailed hawks, seagulls and heron.
The wintering eagles are the big draw, though, for plant workers, visiting wildlife experts and the lucky few who got a bird's-eye view during a public tour last month. Once a year, the plant opens its doors to a few dozen members of the public. A lottery was held to select the attendees.
"It's a fantastic sight. You never get to see that kind of thing anywhere else in those kinds of numbers," said Skiles Boyd, DTE Energy vice president for environmental management and resources.
The phenomenon isn't confined to Michigan. Eagles are known to spend winters at power plants in other cold weather states, including Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
Joel Jorgensen, non-game bird program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, said "bald eagles can be found in good numbers at" the Kingsley Dam near Ogallala, Neb., the J-2 power plant near Lexington, Neb., and Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D.
"All of these facilities produce hydropower and have a spillway," Jorgensen said, adding that the spillways "generally provide a good supply of fish."
While spotting an eagle is still a bit of a rarity, the animal itself is enjoying a renaissance.
The bald eagle was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species in 2007 and Michigan's list of threatened and endangered species two years later, said Karen Cleveland, all-bird biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
"We continue to see year-over-year increases in the number of nesting eagles in Michigan, and nesting eagles can be found all the way from the Ohio state line to Lake Superior," she said.
As for the birds hanging out at the Monroe plant, they most likely came from elsewhere in Michigan or Canada.
Regardless of their origin point, DTE Energy officials say eagles are always welcome.
"All of our workers, whether it be the linemen that are sometimes asked to delay a project or move a power line so that the eagle nesting can go on, to our workers at the power plants that participate in these projects that we do to preserve nature, they get very excited about it," Boyd said.