MONROE - "Cool" seemed to be the most spoken word to fall from the lips of Monroe High School students as they stood on frozen DTE Energy marshland in the shadow of the utility's hulking coal fired power plant.
Many of the 14 juniors and seniors gasped as they pointed binoculars into the blue sky to watch bald eagles soar effortlessly through the cloudless sky.
"This is pretty cool," said Chris Drouillard, who didn't appeared to be bothered by the 13-degree temperature and below-zero wind chill.
For about an hour last week, Chris and his classmates had the assignment of observing the movements and behavior of the predatory birds and water fowl on the Lake Erie shoreline owned by DTE Energy.
It was part of the high school ecology class that the students are taking at Knabusch Math & Science Center at Bolles Harbor.
As they left the parking lots in DTE Energy vans, the students looked to their left to see dozens of eagles roosting in trees along the River Raisin.
Closer to the observation area, more trees were occupied with resting eagles, easily identified by their white heads and tails.
Matt Shackelford, DTE wildlife biologist, explained to students that the hundreds of acres of undisturbed marsh is a winter wonderland for eagles because of gizzard shad that are drawn to the warm water discharged from the power plant.
"We have seen well over 20 bald eagles in this area," he said. "This is a special place, especially in the winter. The bald eagles congregate here over the winter. The fish pack in here over the winter so they can stay ice-free. The eagles eat on fish all winter until the ice thaws, and they move back north."
The 800 acres of undisturbed wildlife habitat controlled by the utility are along the migratory path of many other birds, including swans, egrets, great blue herons, golden eagles, and many species of woodpecker and ducks.
The ecology class is taught by Rick Kleinsmith, of the Monroe County Intermediate School District, which offers the ecology program for students.
At Mr. Kleinsmith's instructions, the students observed the eagles and other birds to obtain data on their behavior, information that they will use back in the class to conduct additional research.
"We hope to get a better feeling for what biologists and ecologists do," Mr. Kleinsmith said.
Robert Lazette, a senior, was impressed with the length of the wing-span of the eagle that he saw swoon over the open water.
"It is just surprising to see an eagle this close. I have seen eagles from a long distance. But I have never seen them this close," he said.