(Photo courtesy of Eileen Capodice via Will County Wildlife Facebook group)
When attempting to do some bald eagle spotting around Will County, it can often be a case of feast or famine, depending on the day and the weather conditions.
But this winter, it has been a seemingly endless buffet of bald eagles in action at Rock Run Rookery Preserve in Joliet, where a large population of these impressive birds have been putting on daily shows. While places like Rock Island and Starved Rock State Park in Utica are often go-to spots for those fascinated by America's bird, this Joliet preserve has been providing more than a suitable alternative closer to home.
"We did make several trips to Rock Island to capture the eagles there, but I really think we've had better luck at Rock Run this year," said Lockport resident Debi Shapiro, who often keeps her camera with her and visits the rookery a few times per week. "It's not worth the drive to see a few more eagles when we have them in our own backyard."
The eagles regularly can be seen perched high atop the trees and visible from a number of spots within the preserve as they patiently scour the landscape looking for their next meal. You might even see them while cruising past the preserve on Route 6.
"We typically see more eagles during the colder months because (they) are utilizing this area to overwinter," said Chris Gutmann, a facility supervisor at Isle a la Cache Museum and an avid birder. "When there are long stretches of sub-freezing temperatures and lakes freeze over, the eagles tend to concentrate at locations that retain unfrozen water."
For these bald eagles, it's all about location, location, location. It's proximity to the Des Plaines River, along with the ample food supply of fish and ducks in that area, means the eagles feel right at home and it's a perfect spot to weather the winter.
"The more food is present, the more eagles you will have," said Erin Ward, an interpretive naturalist for the District who anticipates the boom of activity should last a few more weeks.
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Ward said she's also been seeing an increase in the number of bald eagles at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon where preserve visitors can see four to eight bald eagles at a time.
Simply put, it's a great time for bald eagles in Will County.
"This winter has been something special to say the least," said Joel Craig, a Forest Preserve District volunteer and member of the Will County Audubon Society. "We know from at least one of the Decorah, IA eagles that was fitted with a tracker that while eagles greatly expand their range after leaving the nest, they seem to return to the nesting area in the winter time.
"If this is true for our local eagles as well, that means all these immature eagles we’ve been seeing, most of them second and third year, were hatched in our area. This is really exciting."
That excitement has been obvious based on the number of birders flocking to Rock Run Rookery and then showcasing many of their photos on the District's Will County Wildlife Facebook group.
"I may take 300 photos in a day, but I will only keep a handful of them," Shapiro said. "If it's too cloudy, I know I won't get many photos that I like. There's nothing better than a beautiful sky behind the eagles."
For Minooka resident Eileen Capodice, the bald eagles have inspired her to stop at Rock Run Rookery more often for a dose of nature.
"It's a very tough place to leave if you're lucky with your timing and have bald eagles soaring overhead, sitting in trees and fishing the waters right in front of you," she said. "It's really amazing to witness. If I can capture some of those moments with my camera to share with others, then all the better."
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Members of the wildlife Facebook group, such as Capodice and Shapiro, have posted dozens of photos featuring the eagles soaring, grabbing a meal and sometimes coming up short. And there was the time that eight were sitting in one tree.
The increase in activity also means there's a greater opportunity to see the meaner side of nature.
"I've seen eagles fighting overhead several times this year," Shapiro said. "They will start to swirl around each other and then it gets serious. Unfortunately, they are usually too high up for great photos, but I've actually captured them with their talons locked and one flying upside down under the other to grab on."
Capodice said she's seen her fair share of mid-air disputes, and while it's awesome to watch them fish, it was a different moment of being in the right place at the right time that's particularly memorable.
"I've stood at the observation deck and had an immature bald eagle soaring by on a windy day, and the wind had stopped him momentarily, so it was like he was floating there right in front of me," she said. "That was a surreal experience having it that close to me. And thankfully I had my camera in hand at that moment."
Be sure to follow these guidelines
The National Audubon Society has tips for photographers to not only ensure the safety of bald eagles, but members of the public as well.
You should never attempt to get close to an eagle. Responsible bird-watching etiquette states that a birder’s presence should not change the behavior of a bird. If a bird is reacting to you, then you are too close. Causing birds to flush causes stress to the birds and puts them in danger.
Nests also should be avoided and their location should never be disclosed publicly. Repeated disturbances could cause the eagles incubating eggs to abandon the nest.
Bald eagles are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.