Eagle encounter at Emiquon filled with tension
Plus, where to find Bald Eagles throughout Illinois this winter.
I had another chance to watch Bald Eagles hunt waterfowl on a recent trip to Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge outside of Havana, Ill. As you know, we have the largest wintering Bald Eagle population in the lower 48 states. An estimated 3,000 Bald Eagles overwinter in Illinois.
The wetland was covered in a thin sheet of ice and thousands of ducks and geese were concentrated in small patches of open water. Two immature and two adult Bald Eagles were perched in trees nearby watching these flocks.
The waterfowl and eagles appeared to be relaxed, but there was tension between them. The eagles took turns soaring over the flocks, increasing the unease. The eagles were like conductors and the flocks would shapeshift based on their movements.
When an eagle decides to make a move, it is often subtle. They slowly lose altitude and cruise over the waterfowl. Some of the ducks and geese start to fly low to the water. The waterfowl do not want to waste energy fleeing from the eagle, and the eagle knows that most attempts at catching prey will end in failure. This means that there are a lot of bluffs and false starts.
Once in a while, an eagle commits and quickly dives down into the flock. Chaos ensues. The waterfowl take flight, and the air fills with the rush of thousands of wings. The eagle dives under the flock and flies through the birds searching for one that is slow or injured, picking up speed and nearly matching the velocity of the ducks and geese.
When the eagle locks on to a single bird there is often a prolonged chase with the birds flying at full throttle. If the eagle is faster, the gap between them quickly closes and their flight becomes erratic as the prey tries to outmaneuver the eagle. Both birds display remarkable power and agility. The once-placid scene is now intense.
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The last 10 feet between the eagle and duck close in a second, and at 3 feet the duck drops and crashes into the water. The eagle zips by, turns left, and resumes soaring over the wetland as if nothing has happened. I often wonder what birds are feeling in moments like this. The eagle just went through an intense chase, yet appears as calm as ever, gracefully soaring over the wetland.
The adult’s demeanor changes quickly when one of the immature eagles managed to take a duck. The dark brown juvenile is perched over the duck on a shallow sandbar plucking feathers. The adult eagle drops down and lands 10 yards away. Both birds turn and walk toward each other with a stiff-legged gait and a slow swagger that reminds me of a scene from a gunfight in an old western movie. When they meet, they both jump into the air with talons extended and wings flapping. They repeat this maneuver several times before the immature bird takes flight and the adult eagle starts eating a stolen meal.
Upcoming eagle-viewing opportunities
The incredible display I witnessed is a common occurrence on the big rivers of Illinois during the winter. Bald Eagles are on the move! Cold weather in December pushed eagles south into Illinois to their wintering grounds. The Army Corps of Engineers counts Bald Eagles annually, and they are currently reporting hundreds at locks and dams on the Mississippi River. The high count for December 28 was at Gladstone, Ill., where 810 Bald Eagles were reported.
Many towns along the Mississippi River host eagle-watching events in January and February. These include kid-friendly programming as well as programs for adults. Live eagles are often part of the programs, and you can see them up close before embarking on a guided tour of prime viewing locations on the river.
Bald Eagles congregate near the locks and dams where turbulence keeps the water open and stuns fish, making them easy prey. The number of eagles fluctuates daily at any given location, with January and February being the best times to see good numbers of birds. The eagles start to move back north to their breeding grounds in March, and their numbers in Illinois begin to decrease.
Starved Rock State Park outside of Ottawa, Ill., is a good place to watch Bald Eagles. Starved Rock Lodge hosts trolley tours in January, where visitors enjoy seeing eagles on a scenic stretch of the Illinois River. Eagle Watch Weekend takes place Jan. 28-29 and all programs are free.
Again, as I wrote three weeks ago, taking the time to slow down and watch Bald Eagles is very gratifying. We nearly caused them to go extinct and then we took action to help them recover. Reflecting on our ability to support these charismatic birds hints at so many broader possibilities in conservation.