Growing up, Bob Bryerton, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District, said he never saw eagles flying overhead.
Eagle numbers back then were pitifully low, with only around 400 breeding pairs remaining because of hunting, habitat loss and DDT pesticide contamination. But conservation efforts, the banning of DDT in 1972 and a federal endangered species designation helped the birds rebound. Today, an estimated 250,000 eagles are living in North America, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, allaboutbirds.org.
“It was not until I was finishing college in the mid- to late 1980s that we started seeing eagles once in a while in our area,” Bryerton said. “It is a great story of how humans made changes on behalf of the environment that led to the population recovery of this bird.”
Now, Illinois hosts more wintering bald eagles than any other state in the continental United States, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which has designated the fourth Saturday in January as Illinois Eagle Day.
“Illinois has a growing eagle population, with at least 3,100 bald eagles who winter here each year in at least 27 Illinois counties,” the IDNR website states.
Will County is one of those 27 counties, and eagle sightings are being reported at multiple preserves. To celebrate the raptor’s presence in the preserves, a viewing program has been scheduled for six days over two weekends to take advantage of the eagles that are wintering in McKinley Woods – Kerry Sheridan Grove.
'Eagle Watch on the River' Program
“Eagle Watch on the River” is set for 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Feb. 1-3 and 8-10. Participants can walk the paved paths along the Des Plaines River while watching for bald eagles and other birds wintering at the preserve. During the program, Four Rivers Environmental Education Center will feature complimentary hot beverages, informative displays about eagles, an interactive “Wings on the River” exhibit, indoor bird watching and daily showings of the PBS film “American Eagle” at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
“We’ve had eagles here consistently in January, with the most being spotted at the peak of the deep freeze on January 6,” said Tina Riley, facility supervisor at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center, which is located in McKinley Woods. On Monday, January 8, we had 2 immature eagles sitting out on the ice, in the middle of the river for a very long time – right behind the building. It is really remarkable to have an extended opportunity like that to observe them!”
In addition to the eagles at McKinley Woods, eagles have been spotted in the north at Isle a la Cache and Lake Renwick Heron Rookery Nature Preserve and out east at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve and Monee Reservoir.
Isle a la Cache and Lake Renwick Heron Rookery Nature Preserve
“In the 3.5 years since I’ve arrived at the Forest Preserve District, I’ve noticed an increasingly more consistent presence of eagles on the Des Plaines River here at Isle a la Cache,” said Chris Gutmann, the facility supervisor for the site as well as for Lake Renwick where an eagle pair is residing. “We tend to have four to seven individual eagles spend the winter in this corridor.”
An eagle pair was spotted at Lake Renwick last year, Gutmann added. “I know the male is young, in his fifth year, so we’re waiting to see if the pair will breed this year.”
But you have to be on your toes to spot the eagles, Gutmann advised.
“Most people overlook the eagles flying right over their heads,” he said. “As with birding overall, if you don’t know to look for it, there’s a good chance you’ll walk right by and miss it.”
Monee Reservoir and Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve
An eagle was spotted at Monee Reservoir earlier in January, Bryerton reported.
“It must have killed a duck," he said. "Staff members at Monee Reservoir were able to watch it eat for a bit as it sat on the ice and feasted.”
Because eagles are primarily fish eaters, any preserve with water could host the birds, Bryerton explained.
“In the first week of January, one eagle was spotted sitting on a light pole at Route 394 and Goodenow Road, just outside of Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve,” he said. “And just before Christmas, we saw one just cruising over Goodenow Grove. They are in our preserves pretty much year-round, but we tend to find them more in winter because as the water starts to freeze, their hunting areas get concentrated and birds can show up together in areas of open water.”
READ MORE: WHEN BALD EAGLES GO FISHING, IT'S QUITE A CATCH
Here are some facts to digest before you head out to search the skies for eagles:
- The bald eagle was made our national bird in 1782 by the Continental Congress.
- Bald eagles nest in Canada and the northern United States, but head south during the winter when rivers and lakes freeze. They seek out locks and dams where water remains unfrozen year-round.
- Eagle nests are made of giant collections of sticks called eyries that reach 10 feet across and weigh half a ton.
- Eagles can live to be 50 years old in captivity, and 15 to 25 years in the wild.
- The birds can have a wingspan of 6-8 feet.
- Eagles mate for life and the females lay eggs, usually two or three, in March or April.
- Head and tail feathers on male and female bald eagles don’t turn white until they are around 5 years old.
- Eagles eat mostly fish, but will also consume carrion and small mammals.
- While bald eagles are no longer listed as federally endangered or threatened, they are still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which both prohibit killing, selling or harming eagles and their nests and eggs.
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