So I went out into the farm country of Northern Illinois today to look for Snowy Owls. This is absolutely my nemesis bird, as I’ve never been successful in finding one (unlike by brother Brian, although I gather it’s actually his wife who’s good at finding them). A good measure of my success in seeing a Snowy Owl today is the subject of today’s post: Bald Eagles.

They’re cool, too, though. In the winter we are seeing more and more of these–in fact, I’ve read that Illinois has the second highest number of Bald Eagles after Alaska! Hard to believe? It’s the Mississippi River that draws them, and apparently other rivers such as the Illinois River and Fox River give the edge to Illinois over other states like Iowa or Missouri that share the mighty Mississippi.

My first decent shot of a Bald Eagle occurred in January of 2016. The Fox River was frozen over, but there is a water treatment center up north near Elgin that keeps the water in that area from freezing (I don’t ask why), and I knew from bird alerts that Bald Eagles would sometimes fish there. I pulled up my car to the water’s edge and popped out, fascinated by all the Goldeneyes screaming past and splash-landing in the water. There were actually nearly two dozen Bald Eagles about a hundred yards down the river, either sitting in trees, flying around and interacting, or standing on the ice at the edge of the open water eating fish they caught. I walked along the side of the river and when my way was eventually blocked I leaned against the back of a tree to take more stable shots. I guess I was well hidden because at some point I heard a splash and whirled around just in time to take a quick shot of this eagle across from me taking off from the water with a fish. How this shot is not blurred is beyond me.

I might add that when I was leaving I saw the two most beautiful coyotes I’ve ever seen, surely purebreds as opposed to the Eastern Coyotes that are common around here. Below is a shot of one of them. The narrow snout and tall pointed ears (and smaller size if there were a comparison) identify it as a coyote rather than a gray (timber) wolf, plus I think the tail is bushier. However, if I had known at the time that there are over 3700 gray wolves in the Great Lakes areas of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota alone I would have paid more attention to these two animals.

On February 13 of that year I spent the day traveling up the Fox River from a dam in Yorkville all the way up the Elgin again, stopping to take several pictures of eagles at forest preserves along the way. Once I reached Elgin I took pictures of some of the juveniles. Bald Eagles do not display their characteristic white head and tail until they are five years old. In their first year they are dark brown, and over the next four years the white gradually makes its way around their bodies. This one is probably a second or third year eagle:

I was so taken with the eagles there that I clambered further along the river in much deeper snow than before without bothering to put on boots. Dumb! By the time I left my feet were frozen, so frozen I had to take off my tennis shoes and socks and try to warm my toes up with the car heater and they hurt like hell for over an hour! Had me really worried.

Later that month I was traveling along the Rock River near the Lowden-Miller Forest Preserve  and caught sight of an adult Bald Eagle resting in a tree. They really are regal birds.

Since that time I’ve seen a smattering of Bald Eagles at Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge with my brother and at Whalon Lake Forest Preserve. Which brings us to today, three years after my first shots! After harrowing drives on icy gravel roads between farm fields without spotting any Snowy Owls, I wended my way south to Shabonna Lake State Park in the late afternoon where I had taken some nice shots of Wild Turkeys once before. I figured the lake would be at least partly melted and there would be ducks on it. But I had second thoughts when I saw the icy landscape inside the park. Yikes! Here’s a shot I took later when I left the park at sunset. By the way, those aren’t bunny tracks, which generally have a couple indentations in a row before a sideways pair. If anyone knows what these are please add a comment. Poking around online they look like weasel tracks, and indeed there are two kinds of weasel in Illinois, the least weasel in the northern half and the long-tailed weasel across the whole state.

When I drove in the two miles to the Shabonna Lake itself, it was frozen and snow-covered, and all I saw were ice fisherman with small tents and huge augers standing on it (I wish I had taken a couple pictures of them–sorry, relatively new at this). A flock of Sandhill Cranes flew over making a ruckus, and I scanned them with my binoculars to see if there were any Whooping Cranes mixed in, which happens–nope. My brother Brian fears that someday I’m going to match his Whooping Crane sighting in Texas that way.

But while I was driving out of the park a Bald Eagle emerged from behind two flocks of Canada Geese and flew right in my direction. I slammed my car into park and opened my window to take pics of it. I know from experience that this is a poor approach, as the camera taking pictures through the warm thermals escaping from the car into the cold air leads to poor focus from refractive effects. Even worse, I left the car running, and I’ve found that engine vibrations hurt bird pictures big-time. In the first case I had no time to get out of the car, and I blamed the second oversight on my long winter without much birding. But later I noticed that somehow I had accidentally bumped my shutter speed to 1/3200th of a second prior to that, and the shot came out nice despite my worst efforts!

So the day was productive after all. I’ll resume my search for the elusive Snowy Owl next winter, I guess. It’s good to have goals in life. 🙂

9 thoughts on “Bald Eagles in Illinois

  1. Fantastic birds Eagles and you have some lovely images. I remember telling B awhile back that he had seen more Eagles on one car trip than I had in my life! My total being 4 Golden (Scotland & Greece) 3 White Tailed (here in Norfolk) about 8 Booted (Spain) and a Bonelli (Greece)
    However I got Snowy Owl on my list thanks to a ship assist in a Suffolk port! The ship had past Greenland in a storm and several Snowies pitched up on board, a few made it to Europe and one hopped off in Suffolk. It was accepted by the records committee because no one had attempted to catch or feed it. It eventually flew off heading north after feeding up on the local Partridges.

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    1. Incredible! Am I the only one who has never seen a Snowy Owl?? I was telling someone at work who is aware of my fixation on these creatures how you added one to your list from this sequence of events, and he agreed that I am in fact the only one. This person, absolutely new to birding after I got him interested, was standing on a sidewalk along the Lake Michigan shore in Racine, Wisconsin, last winter when a Snowy Owl flew up and landed on a streetlamp next to him, whereupon he took very nice shots with his cellphone to show me. Someday I’ll have a post of my own on these owls…

      Thanks for your comment, Brian, and sorry about the delay in replying!

      Ron

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    1. Thanks! Northern Illinois really only has had them in any significant way since a major irruption about 5 years ago that drove juveniles down from Wisconsin. I’m very excited that they are here, and I’ll see one sometime. It would help a lot if they showed up when it was warm outside, though. 🙂

      Ron

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  2. Well done Ron. So much here to comment on, not sure where to begin so for starters, that last shot is definitely a keeper (but one I would not enter in any downstate fairs or anything like that – nope definitely would not do that ha). In your first shot I immediately thought about the difference between the Osprey and the Eagle – Osprey always carry their prey in line with their bodies versus Eagles that carry it perpendicular. As an avid Wolf advocate, I have to admit I absolutely despise Coyotes. We are overrun with them out here and their packs are growing way to strong (thanks to not having a strong social hierarchy) even with the locals taking them out when they venture to close to the houses. They will light up at night causing my poodles to get very concerned. With that said, you are correct, that is a stunner of a specimen. Definitely eating well. You were the one who informed me about the long delay in getting their signature white heads – before you mentioned that previously, my assumption was in the year or possibly 2 .. not 4+. As far as the tracks go, my money is on a Squirrel. Lastly, I like the processing on your “regal” shot – was that On1? – very dramatic although I am pretty sure it is giving you the finger (err claw) and is seconds away from attacking you. Nice post – spent some time on this one.

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    1. Interesting, I had not known the difference between how Ospreys vs. Eagles carry their prey. I have read that Osprey’s can’t unclench their talons from a fish, say, once they grab it, and more than one Osprey has been drowned by grabbing a large, strong fish. I’m thinking now that the coyote pictured in the post might be a mix with the gray wolf, because it has a thicker body and much nicer fur than the scrawny brown ones I usually see. Also, I’ve looked up squirrel tracks, and they don’t appear to be just two side-by-side tracks but often four closely-spaced tracks, so I’m sticking by my weasel analysis no matter how outrageously improbable it is…

      The “regal” shot was processed in Adobe Lightroom, way before I started playing with ON1 Photo Raw. This is the kind of picture where people who replace backgrounds would swap the white sky with a blue sky and clouds since the photo is too white overall. But I don’t replace backgrounds–that’s too much processing for me. Interesting observation on the talon, but fortunately I’ve never heard of anyone attacked by an eagle. Yikes, I just Googled that and I wish I hadn’t!!

      Thanks for taking the time to write a similarly-long comment!

      Ron

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