A patriotic silver lining has emerged from our brutal winter. The bald eagle population is booming! In fact, new eagle counts released today, show they’re here in record numbers. As WGN’s Nancy Loo reports in tonight’s Cover Story, eagle watchers don’t need to venture too far to see America’s symbol of freedom in flight.
With bald eagles soaring and looking very much at home here, and a panoramic view of wildlife, you’d hardly know this non stop nature show featuring America’s once endangered national bird, is less than an hour outside of Chicago. “It’s kind of a secret cove here,” says Jack Sanderson, a suburban eagle watcher. “In all the years we’ve been out here, I’ve never seem ‘em here. Couple eagles nesting, but never 30 of ‘em.” Sanderson has lived in the Northwest suburbs for over 30 years. He discovered this eagle hot spot a few weeks ago. It’s along the Fox River between Cary and Fox River Grove, just a short, snowy walk off busy Route 14. And you don’t have to look too hard to see these American icons in flight.
“That’s an eagle up there? Yeah, right over Northwest highway and the train.” The head turning sight of bald eagles, with their wingspans of up to six feet is happening all over Illinois. And the Executive Director of the Illinois Audubon Society, Tom Clay, says you can even see them in Chicago. “People call the Illinois Audubon Society and say, “we want to see eagles, what do we do?” And we say, “Look up,” because that’s exactly where they at, and that includes downtown Chicago.” The attraction is open water and food. Eagle numbers are way up- almost 6000 this year- because their usual spots to the north are too frozen over. So, thousands of bald eagles are now wintering here, joining a year round population in the hundreds. Doug Stotz is a senior ecologist at the Field Museum in Chicago. “We have the second largest wintering eagle population next to Alaska which has both wintering and big breeding populations.” Stotz is among many conservationists who are overjoyed by the eagle population boom. “This is an adult bird with white head and tail. This is an immature eagle.” The species was almost wiped out in the 70’s due to the use of the pesticide D-D-T which stunted egg growth. Banning D-D-T and earmarking more protected land has worked. “They’ve made a pretty impressive comeback.,” says Stotz. While eagle watching is just beginning to spread it’s wings around Chicago, the Starved Rock lock and dam near Utica has been a prime viewing spot for years. Mark Vogt and Anna Kubal are avid eagle fans and come to see them with their professional cameras. “Hour and a half drive, come on down and enjoy the scenery and you’re sure to see an eagle or two or twenty. I’ve never seen so many at one time, and to think they’re so close to home here.”
Flowing water near locks and damns means easy access to fish. Kevin Ewbank, who is lead ranger for the US Army Corps of Engineers at the Illinois Waterway Visitors Center, says steady river traffic also helps. “One thing we have in Illinois is we have tow boats that keep moving through winter. So, they break ice up and down the rivers so the eagles are scattered up and down the river.” Sightings of over a hundred eagles in a single outing have happened in recent weeks at Starved Rock. It never ceases to amaze even those who come here every day, like Kevin. “Come into work some mornings and I’ll stop on the side of the road and look through the sunroof at one perched over the road because I like to look at them too. It never gets old.” Back in the Chicago suburbs, residents like Jack Sanderson say you may want to keep an eagle eye to the skies in all areas near open water.
“People on the train if they’re watching, they just come across the Fox River from Fox River Grove to Cary. Look out the window and you just might see an eagle soaring with a fish in his mouth.” Experts like the Audubon Society’s Tom Clay, say the wintering eagles should remain perched in this region through the end of March. “Some of them will leave. Some of them will stay. So, if you go out bird watching, there’s never a bad time. But right now is a good time for bald eagles.”
Around here, bald eagle sightings have also been reported in Orland Park, Elgin, Geneva, and many communities along the rivers.The Illinois Audubon Society says America’s bald eagle recovery is truly an American conservation success story. And it shows our collective action can and does make a difference! For additional information on bald eagles in Illinois, click these links.
Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalists Steve Scheuer, Mike D’Angelo, and Ted Parra contributed to this report