Despite the cold weather — and also because of it — thousands of people are grabbing their binoculars this winter and heading out to find bald eagles in Illinois.
Chances are better than ever they'll see scenes like the one Thursday near Starved Rock State Park — bald eagles, five or six at a time, swooping over the lock and dam on the Illinois River and then dropping into the icy water to grab fish. In trees along the shoreline, more birds were roosting.
Illinois once offered only a few rare glimpses of what was then a vanishing national symbol, but now the state has become second to Alaska in the U.S. in wintering bald eagle population, experts say. And this year's frigid conditions, combined with the steadily growing population of eagles throughout North America, are bringing the birds into Illinois in greater numbers.
"The colder it is and the longer it stays cold, the more eagles you see," said John Knoble, an Army Corps of Engineers supervisory park ranger in charge of natural resource management for more than 300 miles of the Mississippi River from Wisconsin to Missouri.
As lakes and rivers freeze up north, more eagles are flying south in search of open water and fish. The locks and dams along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, where water remains unfrozen and fish are plentiful, are prime spots for eagles, though the birds have been spotted in many areas of Illinois.
In places where it was once a thrill to see 10 eagles, there now may be hundreds.
"We had 300 birds in one location in Fulton, Ill., this past weekend," Knoble said of the Mississippi River town that birders say is the hot spot this year. "There was a day when we had over 1,000 birds there."
Four decades after the eagle was declared an endangered species in the U.S., experts estimate that there are at least 3,000 eagles in Illinois this winter. That's three times as many as the early '90s. This weekend, volunteers coordinated by the Illinois Audubon Society will check the numbers as part of the organization's annual midwinter bald eagle survey.
"It is hard to believe there was a day when we were concerned about the future of them," Knoble said as he watched 25 eagles outside his Rock Island office along the Mississippi. "Their turnaround is remarkable."
And the eagle-watchers are turning out in greater numbers, officials said.
About 150 to 200 people flock each Saturday and Sunday to the Illinois Waterway Visitors Center's viewing area near the Starved Rock lock and dam in the winter, according to Army Corps park ranger Bob Petruney. And, he said, from 5,000 to 8,000 people typically attend Bald Eagle Watch Weekend in the Starved Rock area, one of several wintertime eagle-related events in Illinois. This year's event at Starved Rock, on Jan. 25 to 26, may draw more people because of growing interest, he said.
Petruney has witnessed the aerial splendor of the eagles and their 6- to 8-foot wingspan for about 10 winters now. The birds arrive in December and depart in March.
As enthused as he is about the large bird of prey that represents freedom, he appears equally enthused with its human fans.
"Sometimes, especially on weekends, they are knocking down the door before 9, and they are still here at 5," Petruney said. "Eagle numbers are up. And I'd say visitor numbers are definitely twice what they were 10 years ago."
Barbara LeVault drove Wednesday with her husband, Jerry, from Morris, Ill., to the visitor center to look at eagles. They make about three trips a year.
"Winter is pretty dull and dark, but the eagles are the one thing we have," she said. "Other people go to Florida, but we go eagling, and we really look forward to it."
Even if you have watched these 10- to 14-pound birds soar and dive, "there's no getting away from how impressive a bird they are," Field Museum senior conservation ecologist Doug Stotz said.
Chicagoland eagle enthusiasts don't need to travel as far as Starved Rock or the Mississippi to set their sights on at least one. Bald eagles have been spotted along the Fox River at Geneva, Batavia and further downstream at Oswego and Montgomery, as well as in numerous other northern Illinois counties. Chris Anchor, wildlife biologist for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, said eagles have been seen along the Des Plaines and Chicago rivers and Salt Creek.
"People will call (the Illinois Audubon Society office in Springfield) and say, 'We want to see eagles. What should we do?' And we say, 'Look up,'" said Tom Clay, the society's executive director. "Even in Sangamon County, here in the middle of the prairie, we have eagles."
An American success story
One reason interest in the bald eagle is high is because it is so closely tied to the U.S., its image found in so many places, said Nan Buckardt, director of environmental education and public affairs for the Lake County Forest Preserve District.
"But they are also huge birds, and they are so impressive that when you see them it is hard not to stop and stare," she said. "People tend to not believe their eyes, and then they call us and we get the pleasure of reassuring them. Yes, they've seen a bald eagle in the wild."
"They are the great American success story," Clay said. "Eagles are a sign that we can change our ways."
On July 4, 1976, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bald eagle on the national endangered species list after years of decline in population that is most often blamed on habitat destruction and the pesticide DDT.
But as DDT and similar pesticides were banned and laws were enacted to clean up the water and protect nesting trees, the eagles began to recover. In 2007, the bald eagle was taken off the endangered list, but it continues to be protected by other federal laws.
There are efforts nationwide to continue monitoring the population, among them the Audubon Society's midwinter count to determine wintering populations in the contiguous U.S. The report has shown the midwinter count in Illinois rose from 1,156 in 1993 to 2,325 last year. Clay said he expects larger numbers this year and easier and more accurate counting because the birds are concentrated around locks and dams.
The Corps also does its own weekly lock and dam eagle count, with rangers along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers counting the eagles during December, January and February. The results from the Mississippi count are posted weekly on the Rock Island District's website. Rangers say if there is any delay in online reporting, people call wanting to know where the eagles are that day and how many.
"I believe this marked our 30th year for organized bald eagles watches," Knoble said. "When we started, we were lucky if we saw 10 to 15 at each lock and dam. We were thrilled. Now if we see 10 or 15, that's a horrible day."
Most of the birds seen in Illinois in January and February are migratory eagles that have come south from the Upper Great Lakes region in search of food, experts say. Though they prefer fish, they also will eat waterfowl and roadkill. They are opportunists, scientists say. Generally, the harsher the weather is for humans, the better it is for eagle-watching.
Breeding numbers up
While the winter numbers are impressive, what's more important for the future is the number of breeding pairs of bald eagles in the state, said Joe Kath, endangered species manager with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
"The midwinter count directs people toward the sites where they can see the eagles," he said. "When it comes to recovery, it's based on the number of breeding pairs."
The IDNR in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitors active nests that produce and fledge young. Illinois documented just eight breeding pairs in 1990, but more than 100 in 2007. Kath said that upward trend continues in every state where eagles are documented.
According to Kath, early 1960s nationwide surveys showed 417 eagle breeding pairs in the Lower 48 states, but the number rose to 9,800 by the time the bald eagle was taken off the endangered list in 2007.
The IDNR lists 14 eagle events in Illinois on its website, Kath said. Some are in conjunction with Iowa and Missouri, and all take place on weekends in January and February, including this weekend's Quad Cities Bald Eagle Appreciation Days.
Kathy Casstevens, marketing director at Starved Rock Lodge, said eagles have given people more than one reason to visit the state park in winter. "Frozen waterfalls are stunning," she said. "But there's nothing like seeing a mature bald eagle in flight right over your head."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun