January is Prime Time for Bald Eagle Watching in IllinoisDec 29, 2023 ● By Sheryl DeVore
An adult bald eagle soars. Photo by Ari Shavit.
The remarkable comeback of the once-endangered bald eagle has made it fairly easy to find these birds in winter in areas of Illinois, especially with help from local organizations and partners. In fact, today, more than 3,000 bald eagles spend the coldest months in the state, making it the best place to view these majestic raptors in the United States, after Alaska.
“In the middle of winter, searching for bald eagles gives you that extra nudge to get outside,” says Stacy Iwanicki, natural resources coordinator and naturalist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).
Bald eagle watching and appreciation events are held statewide in January, with many near the Chicago area, including at Starved Rock State Park and in Rock Island. The IDNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, McHenry County Audubon Society and others have run a free annual event—In Search of Bald Eagles—each January in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin for the past 20 years.
This year, the popular event will take place on January 20. The public can visit one of several designated eagle watching spots, including McHenry Dam, Algonquin Dam and Carpentersville Dam. Volunteers will set up telescopes to give visitors closer views of the birds of prey. Binoculars can also be used to watch riveting scenes like when an eagle dips its talons into the water to snatch fish. At these and other bald eagle watching events, visitors can see adults with their bright white heads and matching white tails as well as immature bald eagles, which have darker plumage, as they don’t acquire the full white head and tail until they reach about 5 years old.
“This is an important annual event because nature is the quintessential thing that can help people come together,” Iwanicki says. “The bald eagle story is a success story,” she adds. “It shows the power of the people to do good, as they worked to bring eagles back from the brink of extinction.”
“Their numbers plummeted in the 1950s because of loss of habitat and overuse of pesticides, particularly DDT,” explains Iwanicki. Ingesting the DDT caused the birds to lay eggs with thinner than normal shells. “When the birds would incubate, they’d break their own eggs,” she continues.
“Bald eagles were absent as a nesting species in the Chicago area for more than 100 years, with the last known nesting pair in 1900,” Iwanicki states. The bird was placed on the federally endangered species list in 1978.
“People worked together to protect the birds and put limits on pesticides in the United States, and it made a difference,” says Iwanicki.
In the 1980s and 1990s, numbers began to increase nationwide, and in 2004, the first bald eagle nest in a century in the Chicago area was recorded at the Little Calumet River. The bald eagle was removed from the federal threatened and endangered species list three years later.
Bald eagles are not nesting in Illinois in January and February. Rather, the birds spend winters in Illinois because of food availability at various locks and dams, especially along the Mississippi River. They will begin nesting in the region in about March, while others wintering here will fly elsewhere to raise young.
“A number of rivers and lakes here don’t quite freeze over in winter, which draws eagles to an ample food source, typically from mid-January through mid-February,” notes Iwanicki.
The birds congregate near locks and dams, where fish get stunned by the turbulent water and become easy pickings. Bald eagles also will eat other sources of protein. For example, local birder Ari Shavit saw eight bald eagles feeding on a deer carcass on the ground one January day. One of his favorite places to visit is Lock and Dam No. 14, in Iowa, just across the Illinois border. “It’s a great place to photograph eagles,” says Shavit.
Rich Bartecki, of Evanston, and his son, Jake Bartecki, 25, have been going to Starved Rock State Park to see bald eagles in winter for the past 18 years. The park hosts Bald Eagle Appreciation Days in late January, but the Barteckis typically go earlier in the year. “The eagles have been there every year we have gone,” Rich Bartecki says. “We enjoy watching them feed in the Illinois River and roost on Plum Island.”
“The first time Jake saw an eagle was quite memorable,” Rich Bartecki recalls. “The temperature was about 5 degrees out, so there weren’t many people around. There were probably a dozen eagles swooping into the Illinois River to fish. The eagles were very active and they were soaring and hitting the water to feed. I have a great photo of Jake wrapped up like the kid in A Christmas Story to stay warm. We stayed outside for about 10 minutes, then went into the lodge to have breakfast. I still remember it like yesterday,” he says.
“We’ve also been 20 feet from eagles resting in trees along the upland trail,” he adds. “When you’re that close, you really get a feeling for their size.”
The Barteckis also view other birds along the Illinois River while searching for eagles, and suggest bringing a pair of binoculars and a bird book. “We’ve seen every type of winter bird, plus owls, sandhill cranes and other birds that shouldn’t be around in late December but still are,” Rich Bartecki says.
The open water that attracts the eagles also attracts a variety of waterfowl including mergansers. “That’s one of the things I enjoy the most while we’re waiting for the eagles to appear is talking with people about all the other birds they can see while they’re waiting,” shares Iwanicki.
Prepare wisely for a bald eagle trip, both Rich Bartecki and Iwanicki suggest. “Expect all types of weather,” says Rich Bartecki. “We’ve seen sub-zero temperatures; blizzards; light snow; sunny, comfortable 32-degree days; and pouring rain and 45 degrees,” he says. “I would recommend bringing warm clothes, wearing lots of layers and bringing a raincoat. Also, good hiking shoes are a must.”
The colder the better for finding larger numbers of eagles congregating in one place. As more water freezes, eagles need to search for open water to continue their feeding. During warmer winters, eagles spread out more and fewer are seen in one spot.
Rich Bartecki says it’s important to stay on the trails at Starved Rock, or anywhere while watching the eagles. “During the winter, there can be lots of ice and slippery patches, which can be dangerous if you stray off the marked trails at Starved Rock,” he points out. “The marked trails are in good shape and give you access to the eagles, along with all the waterfalls in the park.”
Iwanicki says each year during the bald eagle search in McHenry County, she puts special “heaters” in the toes of her shoes to keep warm and wears layers of clothing, as well as a hat, scarf and thick mittens. “It’s rewarding to be able to stand out there, and you know it’s really cold, but you know how to dress for it,” she says. That makes it even more satisfying when watching America’s national emblem soaring in the air.
Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications. Read more at SherylDeVore.Wordpress.com.
Bald Eagle Days in Illinois
Visitors can go at any time to these places to look for bald eagles in January and February; but to have help finding the eagles and learn more about them, there are several nearby and farther afield events in the state.
Quad City Bald Eagle
Quad City Conservation Alliance Expo Center, Rock Island. $1 for children; $6 for adults. The three-day event includes tours to see bald eagles plus presentations on birds of prey and other Illinois wildlife.
In Search of Eagles: January 20
McHenry County and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Free and open to the public. Volunteers will be at the McHenry, Algonquin and Carpentersville dams along the Fox River and on Lake Geneva to help attendees search for eagles. Scopes and binoculars are available for use. An indoor presentation (registration required) on eagles and other birds of prey will be held from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Prairieview Education Center, Crystal Lake.
Eagle Watch Weekend:
January 27 and 28
StarvedRock Lodge and Conference Center, Oglesby. Free and open to the public. Events include indoor raptor presentations, crafts for kids and outdoor excursions to see bald eagles. The weekend begins at 9 a.m., January 27 and ends at 4 p.m., January 28.