Inaugural program along Fox marks return of bald eagles
Because of its familiar image, the bald eagle may be among the best-known creatures in the United States. But seeing the national bird live makes even the most seasoned outdoorsmen take notice.
"I've seen many of them just the last couple of years locally and I'm not jaded yet," said Mike Redmer, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "I still say, 'Wow.'"
That is particularly true of the adult birds, distinguishable by an enormous wingspan, striking white head and tail, and yellow talons. And with their numbers increasing here, the agency and several partners want to raise awareness of these majestic birds and the environments that support them.
On Saturday, Redmer and others from his agency, as well as the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, McHenry County Conservation District and McHenry County Audubon will host the inaugural "In Search of Eagles" viewing from 9 to 11 a.m. at the McHenry, Algonquin and Carpentersville dams. Visit www.mccdistrict.org/ for maps and details.
"This is a first (for this area) but it's copying off a concept that's been going on for a long time," said Redmer, who works out of the Chicago field office in Barrington.
"We can say somewhat reliably that eagles are here in the winter. We thought we'd give it a try."
Volunteers will staff the dams and will have extra pairs of binoculars and spotting scopes available for whatever wildlife happens by.
"This is somewhat of a social gathering as well," said Gregory Rajsky, an outdoor educator, member of the Friends of Hackmatack board and one of the event coordinators. "It's a place to meet people from your community who have an appreciation of the natural world or a curiosity."
Birders and casual observers no longer have to take long drives to Ottawa or the Quad Cities to spot bald eagles, which more often hang out near river dams where the water is free of ice and fish are available.
"They were here at one time but have been absent as a nesting species for over 100 years, and they were listed (as endangered) in 1978," said Cathy Pollack, a biologist who works with Redmer.
Once near extinction, the eagle population began to rebound after the pesticide DDT -- which softened eagle eggs and hindered hatching -- was banned and habitat restoration and other efforts ensued. It was removed from the threatened and endangered list in 2007, but it still is protected under federal law -- as are their nests, whether occupied or not.
Though common in other areas of the state, bald eagles weren't evident in northeastern Illinois until 2004 when a nest was observed along the Little Calumet River in Chicago.
"By the '80s and 1990s, the bald eagles were increasing nationwide. They were occasionally seen here in the winter but were not nesting," Pollack said.
There now are about 15 eagle nests in the six-county metropolitan region and Boone County, she said, although that doesn't provide a hard count of resident bald eagles as nesting pairs may build two or three nests.
Redmer said there has been a surge the past few years of bald eagles congregating near dams along the Fox River, including a dozen or more at McHenry, Elgin and Batavia, with lower numbers at Algonquin, Carpentersville, St. Charles and South Elgin.
"As long as they can catch fish or find food, they'll hang around," Redmer said.
Eagles also have been spotted on the Chain O' Lakes, Red Wing Slough, Illinois State Beach Park and other locations in Lake County.
"We have suitable habitat and their numbers are growing. They are restoring their range," Rajsky said.
While some stay all winter, many bald eagles are visitors from the north, according to Stacy Iwanicki, a natural resources coordinator for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
"They have to stay ahead of the freeze line," she said. "It doesn't take enough ice for humans to stand on to block fishing opportunities for eagles."
The November chill was an encouraging sign for eagle watching, but deep freeze has receded and the river is free of ice. That means there are ample fishing spots all along the river, rather than just near dams.
That could temper the propensity to congregate near dams to feed, but volunteers still think there is a good chance of spotting some bald eagles, which already have been cruising the river.
But the habitat is rich with other birds and there will be a show in any case, they predict.
"If we don't see eagles, there will be other things to look at," Redmer said. "Even if we don't see (bald eagles), there are about eight or nine places along the Fox River they (viewers) can go out and see them themselves."
Redmer and others said the impetus for the inaugural event wasn't solely to watch eagles.
Agencies also hope to educate the public about the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2012 and planned for 11,200 acres of wetlands, prairie and oak savanna in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
Though it's not open to the public, the idea is to begin linking green areas to provide refuge for 109 threatened or endangered species of plants and animals, and provide opportunities for education and wildlife observation for people in urban areas.
"People tend to forget what we've got all around us," Rajsky said.