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. 🙂