ST. PAUL, Minn. - Minnesota's beloved bald eagles are returning to the state over the next few weeks, earlier than historical norms.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) says the spring eagle migration usually coincides with ice-out., which is being sped up by a warm February, melted snow cover and ice starting to break up in rivers.

“Because of that, this year’s migration appears to be a couple weeks earlier, so folks in southern Minnesota will be seeing eagles soon, even with the last remnants of winter,” said DNR regional Nongame Wildlife specialist Lisa Gelvin-Innvaer. “We’re already seeing small groups of eagles along the Minnesota River.”

Minnesota trails only two states, Florida and Alaska, in nesting populations of bald eagles. In 2005, researchers estimated there are more than 1,300 active nests in Minnesota. Most will remain until lakes and rivers freeze up in November or December, as eagles tend to prefer a diet of fish. As eagle populations have thrived, however, some stay in Minnesota to winter, expanding their diet to mammals, other birds and road kill.

Gelvin-Innvaer says in many areas of Minnesota it's becoming more common for some eagle pairs to stay the winter, especially during milder winters that can offer open water.

“This year’s winter was a bit milder,” Gelvin-Innvaer said. “There were fewer subzero nights and not as much snow on the ground as some other years. That should have made for an easier winter for them to find food.”

Bald eagles that stay local may begin courting and nesting as early as December or January. Other bald eagles return to their breeding territories as soon as a food source is available.

"Eagles tend to vary their migration routes, so it's hard to say exactly where the eagles are right now," Gelvin-Innvaer said. In Minnesota, the biggest migrations tend to be along the Minnesota River corridor, the north shore of Lake Superior and around Lake Pepin in southeastern Minnesota.