Congregation of eagles becomes a pasttime for some Lake County residents
Even from a distance, there is no mistaking the soaring visitors as being quite different from the throngs of gulls and other birds that chatter and caw as they ply the shoreline where Nippersink Lake and Fox Lake converge.
Drawn by open water, more than a dozen bald eagles have made this area their winter home, providing visitors with an unparalleled aerial display. With wingspans that can reach more than seven feet, the eagles are an awe-inspiring presence.
"How would you describe it? How about majestic," says Bobby Beyers, a Wauconda resident and owner of Shoreline Marine Contractors.
The increased presence of eagles, which have attracted bird-watchers and photographers to the area, is no illusion.
The Illinois Audubon Society on Friday reported a surge in the number of eagles wintering along the Mississippi River and other waterways due to extreme cold in the northern parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Volunteers counted a record 5,975 birds between Jan. 1 and Jan. 15, mostly along the Mississippi, easily surpassing the previous high of 4,292 reported in 2008.
Beyers and Adam Nelson, who lives nearby in Fox Lake, have been getting a daily view of the huge, powerful birds while working at the tip of Leisure Point in the Chain 'O Lakes region of northern Lake County.
They have seen them extract fish from the water and make a meal of a duck. A boat mechanic told Beyers he saw an eagle pluck a pigeon out of midair.
"They're doing some good fishing in here," said Beyers, who has worked on the Chain for 25 years. He said he never has seen as many eagles at one time as this season.
Neither has Saul Moya, who for 12 years has managed El Puerto restaurant on the point facing Nippersink Lake. The shoreline didn't freeze, and the eagles came to eat.
"A couple of days ago, we saw 16. That's a lot. Every year we see one or two, but never like this," Moya said. "The eagles, they fly close to the water and grab a fish. It's amazing how they do it."
Nesting eagles are rare in Lake County, but winter visitors are not uncommon, said Mark Hurley, an environmental educator with the Lake County Forest Preserve District.
"Wherever there is open water right now, that's why they're congregating. Those are northern eagles," Hurley said of those on Fox Lake. "They're down here because it's warmer and they can fish."
Neighbors in the townhouse community at Leisure Point watch the eagles at different times and call or email each other with updates, said Nadine Norton, who has lived here 11 years.
"They're majestic. They're gorgeous. They're so easy to spot," said Norton, who with her mother, Rae Bolstad, was walking her dog, Roxie, down to the shore to take a look. "This has been our pastime these long and cold winter months."
Hurley said eagles typically are visible in the spring as they head north and in the fall when they head south.
Hurley expects there to be fish kills because of the thick ice. Once that ice recedes there likely will be more eagles to see along open water and tree lines, particularly near the Des Plaines River.
"They'll be coming through here awhile yet," he said.