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