Winter, open water make easy viewing of bald eagles

An adult Bald Eagle perches in a tree along South River Road south of the Algonquin dam Monday in Algonquin. Bird watchers say as many as 12 eagles have been seen in the area where they hunt for fish.
An adult Bald Eagle perches in a tree along South River Road south of the Algonquin dam Monday in Algonquin. Bird watchers say as many as 12 eagles have been seen in the area where they hunt for fish.

CARPENTERSVILLE – While workers drove down Main Street on a cold and drizzly Friday afternoon looking for lunch, a bald eagle just north of them was doing the same.

He was perched on a tall tree on an island just south of Carpentersville Dam, scanning for fish in water that was not frozen by the previous record cold snap. A juvenile bald eagle, which had not yet grown the species’ unmistakable white head and tail, flew up and perched on a higher branch of the same tree. And on the other side of the island just upstream from Otto Engineering, four more adults and juveniles perched and flew.

Below them swam a number of mallards, goldeneyes and mergansers, also drawn to the open water and blissfully unaware of the fact that while bald eagles prefer fish, a duck dinner is the next best thing.

The eagles were aware of the four photographers snapping away at the dam’s observation deck – eagle vision is at least four times sharper than ours, and they can spot prey a mile away – but they let them conduct their long-range admiration.

Photographers Chris Mussachio of Algonquin and George Barrer of Elgin snapped pictures of the perched eagle, and of others flying down the river, on their tripod-mounted cameras. While photography is a hobby for them, the two also sell their prints.

“We’ve got three, four months to get these guys, and that’s it. By March, they’re gone,” Mussachio said.

That’s not exactly true – while winter is the best and easiest time in northern Illinois to see them, their increasing numbers mean that more of them are sticking around in the warm-weather months to nest and raise chicks.

The species has made an amazing comeback over the past 40 years – the nation that adopted the bird as its national symbol came very close to wiping them out.

Their numbers, estimated at 300,000 to 500,000 when the Second Continental Congress declared the bald eagle the national symbol in 1782, dwindled to 487 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states by 1963, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The decline, started through hunting and loss of habitat, accelerated with the industrial pollution of waterways and the liberal use of pesticides, especially DDT, which made eagles’ eggs too fragile to survive.

The declaration of the bald eagle as an endangered species in 1967, and the banning of DDT in the United States five years later, helped the species rebound, along with dedicated conservation efforts. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimated at least 9,789 breeding pairs existed in the lower 48 states in 2007, when the bald eagle was removed from the lists of endangered and threatened species.

Bald eagles like open water and tall, old trees, which makes much of the Fox River ideal for viewing them. In weather cold enough to freeze large bodies of water, the best places to view them are at dams, such as the ones in McHenry. Algonquin, Carpentersville and Elgin. The cold weather also makes them more prone to standing still to conserve body heat, and makes them less territorial and likely to group together.

However, more pairs are nesting in the area during spring mating season, said McHenry County Audubon Society President Randy Schietzelt. Besides the Fox River, other nesting locations for breeding season include Glacial Park in Ringwood and Moraine Hills State Park near McHenry. Bald eagles tend to mate for life, and their nests, called aeries, are the largest of any North American bird and can easily weigh a ton.

If you go looking for bald eagles or other birds, the rules of common sense and common courtesy apply. Don’t do anything to disrupt birds’ activities or their habitat, stay on paths on public land and don’t enter private property without the owner’s permission.

Behind Mussachio and Barrer at the dam stood Chris Payonk of Carpentersville, also taking photos of the perched eagle. For him, watching bald eagles is therapeutic – he has been on disability for the past several years after suffering two heart attacks and a stroke.

“It just helps me to relax, and concentrate, and remember things,” Payonk said.

Where to find bald eagles

During the winter months, bald eagles can be found in locations with free or running water and large, older trees. The Fox River is the best chance, although large lakes also offer sighting opportunities.

Responsible birding

People who observe birds have a responsibility not to disrupt their habitat or activities in order to preserve nature for others.

The following tips come from the American Birding Association Principles of Birding Ethics:

• Exercise restraint and caution while observing or recording them.

• Keep well back from nests, roosts, display areas and important feeding sites.

• Keep habitat disruption to a minimum – stay on roads, trails and paths where they exist.

• Respect the law – do not violate rules set on public lands, and do not enter private property without the owner’s permission.

• If you spot a rare bird, consider the likely disruption before advertising its presence to others.

On the Web

You can learn more about birding and bird conservation at the American Birding Association website at www.aba.org, or the National Audubon Society at www.audubon.org.

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