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Eagles back, abounding in the Fox Valley

A pair bald eagles look from above Friday near Buffalo Park AlgonquFebruary 2013  | Sun-Times Medifile

A pair of bald eagles look from above Friday near Buffalo Park in Algonquin in February 2013 | Sun-Times Media file

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Updated: March 5, 2013 6:10AM

Spotting bald eagles soaring above the Fox River Valley has become a rite of winter, and this season several locals say the big birds are here in more numbers than in past years.

“They really are everywhere on the river right now,” Erik Olsen of Elgin said.

Olsen, an avid fisherman, saw three last Tuesday while at Voyageur’s Landing Forest Preserve in Elgin just north of the Interstate 90 overpass. He’s also seen them at the Carpentersville dam, along the bike trail in the Dundee area, at Jon Duerr Forest Preserve in South Elgin and near the Elgin water plant, where he works, when there is open water.

And a friend of Olsen’s further south spotted 39 of them along a 10-mile stretch of the Fox between Montgomery and Yorkville.

Such local sightings gained attention in January 2011, when the Gail Borden Library in downtown Elgin became a de facto eagle viewing spot. Recent postings online at the Eagle Viewing Directory,, include eagles noticed by the Arboretum in South Barrington along Routes 59 and 72, off Woodstock Road in Woodstock, and Dec. 31 by Elgin’s library. And a nesting pair summers at Mooseheart Child City & School property near Batavia.

Hunting for fish

According to the Kane County Audubon Society website (www,, “anecdotal evidence suggests that we have 30 or more eagles patrolling the Fox River in Kane County this winter, hunting for fish. That’s an astounding increase from less than ten years ago when a sighting of one or two birds was considered major news.”

In 2011, Jerry Hope of St. Charles and a member of the Kane County chapter told The Courier-News that he first noticed bald eagles in the area about a dozen years prior. There were spotted between St. Charles and Geneva off the Fox’s shores, then six years after that the birds were seen in towns that included South Elgin and East Dundee.

In the 1950s, experts put the number of bald eagle pairs in the lower 48 states at only between 200 and 400. The pesticide DDT had almost wiped out the species by causing the birds’ eggshells to be too soft. That led to the birds crushing their own offspring while nesting the eggs.

The DDT ban in 1972 helped bring back the species as did federal laws put on the books in the 1960s and later protecting the birds. According to the American Bald Eagle Information website, there now are more than 70,000 of the birds.

By 2007, “the Interior Department took the American bald eagle off the Endangered Species List. The bald eagle will still be protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The Bald Eagle Protection Act prohibits the take, transport, sale, barter, trade, import and export, and possession of eagles, making it illegal for anyone to collect eagles and eagle parts, nests, or eggs without a permit. Native Americans are able to possess these emblems which are traditional in their culture,” the website states.

According to the “Save Our Eagles” Web page maintained by the state (, “Illinois has a growing eagle population, with at least 3,100 bald eagles who winter here each year in at least 27 Illinois counties...more wintering American bald eagles, in fact, than in any other state outside Alaska. The first eagles of the season are spotted in Illinois in December and remain in residence until they migrate back north in March, with January and February the optimal time for visitors to see eagles.”

As many as 1,000 bald eagles have been counted along the Mississippi near Alton during the winter. The birds are scavengers that will look for open water such as that near dams where it is easy to catch their aquatic prey.

Thus, locations along the state’s bigger rivers are becoming winter tourist spots for eagle watchers. Along with Alton, those places include Banner Marsh and Rice Lake State Fish and Wildlife Areas, about 25 miles southwest of Peoria and a mile from the Illinois River; Pere Marquette State Park near Grafton and the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers; Starved Rock State Park near Oglesby along the Illinois River; the Quad Cities along the Mississippi; and the Hennepin Canal between the Illinois near Hennepin and the Mississippi near Rock Island.

Here in the Fox Valley, Mike Turner of Hampshire first noticed the eagles in the area about three years ago. Last winter, he posted photographs on Facebook in ealry December, and this season he noticed them before Thanksgiving.

Turner frequently heads to the Fox in the Dundee-Carpentersville area mornings before heading to work at O’Hare Airport in Chicago to snap shots of the eagles, other wildlife and nature.

More seen locally

Based on his observations, the numbers of bald eagles was smaller last winter with the mild weather, but with this season’s up and down temperatures, Turner said he’s seen more of the big birds than he ever has.

“(Jan. 24) I saw 40 of them. It was like being in Alaska,” Turner said.

Turner noted that the biggest concentration of eagles he’s noticed has been north of the Carpentersville dam and in and around South End Park in West Dundee, where there have been as many as 18 birds perched in a tree at any one time. A friend has seen them at Buffalo Park in Algonquin.

As for tips for others hoping to catch glimpses of the eagles, it’s been Turner’s experience that around 8:30 a.m. has been the best time, and the birds seem most active on cold, bright blue days.

Weekdays are better than weekends, Turner said, and that’s probably because word has gotten out, so there are more people searching for the eagles, which are typically skittish around humans.

Since the eagles are attracted to open water for fish and scavenging, one of the more interesting things Turner spotted was that’s seeing an eagle take fish from gulls milling about on a frozen part of the river.

For taking photos, Turner tries to get as close as he can without drawing attention to himself and has sat on the rocks along the riverbank or on the river walk, which in some cases has resulted in the eagles flying right over him.

“The key is patience,” Turner said.

“But it never fails, I often wind up on the opposite side of the river from where the eagles are,” he added.

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