Each year, a majestic spectacle occurs in the skies above Illinois. Our state is home to one of the largest populations of wintering bald eagles in the country, second only to Alaska. And right now is one of the best times to see them.
Peak eagle-spotting season is typically January through March, depending on the weather. “The colder the better,” says Lisa Sons, the natural resource coordinator at Starved Rock State Park. That’s because the waterways up north begin to freeze, which causes the eagles to fly south to hunt.
“They’re looking for warmer waters and patches that haven’t frozen,” says Sons. “We get a large number [near Starved Rock] in the cold winter because of the lock and dam. The water there is forever churning, so it’s kind of like a free fish buffet.”
While most eagles are only in the area for a short time, some come back to the same spot to nest year after year. “The bulk of eagles coming down are migrating from northern areas,” says Sons. “But we also get resident bald eagles, we actually have a pair that’s local.”
Eagles begin to arrive in the state in December in search of open water. This makes many areas around Northern Illinois prime viewing for eagle-watchers, especially along the Illinois River and other major waterways. They typically can be seen throughout the area until March.
This wasn’t always the case. Not long ago, the bird was designated an endangered species. The eagles later were upgraded to threatened, then removed from both lists in 2007. The bald eagle remains protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, which makes it criminally punishable to disturb, hurt or kill an eagle.
Now, the species is flourishing. More than 3,000 bald eagles are expected to soar through the area during this year’s winter migration. To celebrate, Starved Rock will host their Eagle Watching Weekend on Jan. 27 and 28. The annual event features programs, activities and exhibits Starved Rock Lodge, Starved Rock Visitor Center and the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center.
The weekend’s events include live bird exhibitions, guided tours up Starved Rock, an owl hooting content for children
and more. Starved Rock Audubon Society members will be on site with high powered scopes and can answer all your questions. Guests can also catch a trolley across the river to look for eagles from all vantage points.
If you’re trying to catch glimpse of one of these great birds, Sons recommend heading out early. The eagles roost in the middle of the day between hunting trips, so they’re most active in the morning and later afternoon. The best viewing times are from 7 to 9 a.m. and from 4 to 5 p.m.
Sons also recommends bringing a pair of binoculars. You can rent them for free at the Starved Rock Visitor Center. Binoculars can help you get a closer look without invading the eagles’ space. It can also help distinguish between eagles and other types of birds. For instance, immature bald eagles are easily mistaken for hawks, because they won’t develop their signature white plumage until they’re four or five years old.
Bird watching is popular year round at Starved Rock, but there’s something about eagles that draws huge crowds. “They’re very statuesque,” says spans. “They have six foot wings spans, that’s something that’s very impressive. And people identify with it being our national symbol.”
Older eagles, both male and female, will have a black-brown body with a white head, neck and tail. Keep your eyes peeled, because they move fast – a grown eagle can hit speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. Females are slightly larger than males, clocking in at 35 to 37 inches tall.
Though you can spot eagles from the ground level, getting to higher ground can make for optimal viewing. Finding a spot that’s level with the tree line can help you spot nests near the tops of trees. If you’re headed to Utica, “you’ll have really good vantage points on top of Starved Rock, Lover’s Leap and Eagle Cliff overlooks.
If you want to cover more ground, and increase your chances of seeing even more eagles, head to Galena. The Eagle Nature Foundation offers a four-hour bus tour that departs from the east side Galena and winds along the Upper Mississippi River. In past years, participants have seen 30 to 450 bald eagles in just a few hours.
The tour visits five historic eagle wintering communities and includes educational information about the local eagle population. Terrence N. Ingram, CEO and founder of the Eagle Nature Foundation, leads the tour. He has researched and photographed eagles for more than 50 years, and recommends people see the eagles here before changes in the environment potentially drive them away.
To enjoy your eagle-watching experience,
follow these tips:
• Watch right above the tree line. Eagles tend to perch in tree tops.
• Look overhead for eagles flying high above
• Keep an eye out for dams, ice floes, and river islands. They’re popular spots for eagles to hunt and perch.
• Dress warmly. The colder the weather, the better the chance of seeing more eagles.
• Keep pets at home to avoid scaring away the eagles.
• Bring binoculars to get a closer look and a camera to document your sightings.
• Be patient. It can take time to spot eagles in the wild.
Most of all, give the creatures their space. Try to stay at least 150 yards away from eagles and their homes to avoid disrupting their nesting.
“Be respectful of their space and their habitat,” says Sons. “Don’t try to feed them or taunt them. Just watch them from a distance and appreciate.”
Here are some of the best spots to see bald eagles and other birds in flight this winter:
Starved Rock State Park
2668 E. 875th Rd., Oglesby
Eagles return to this area each year for the churning waters near the dam and Plum Island Eagle Sanctuary, a nearby island in the Illinois River managed by the Illinois Audubon Society. Eagle Watching Weekend is on Saturday, Jan. 27 and Sunday, Jan. 28. In January and February, visitors can park at the State Park Lodge and hop on the eagle-watching trolley tour for just $1.
Birds: bitterns, herons, owls, turkey, pheasant, woodpeckers
Info: Walk the shores of the Fox River and you can potentially spot dozens of eagles flying overhead. A good spot to start is the Elgin Shores Forest Preserve (772 S State St.), with parking available at 601 S State St. The Fox River Shores Forest Preserve (245 N Lincoln Ave, Carpentersville) also has annual eagle sightings. Walk down the river's edge to see eagles fishing in the open waters between the Carpentersville Bridge and the Dundee Bridge. Parking is available at 701 North Williams Rd. In Elgin, the area around the downtown library (270 N. Grove Ave.) is a popular spot for eagles to perch on trees and fish in the river. They also can be spotted in Veterans Park, just north of the library. Parking is available at the library.
Birds: swans, herring, wrens, sparrows, geese, merlin, warblers, sandpipes
Eagles can be spotted at multiple locations in Galena. Bird watchers can head to Casper Bluff Land & Water Reserve (870 South Pilot Knob Rd.), Chestnut Mountain Resort (8700 West Chestnut Rd.) and Keough Effigy Land and Water Reserve (1683 North Cross Rd.). The Eagle Nature Foundation offers four-hour bus tours to observe wintering eagles along the Upper Mississippi River. Tours leave from the Best Western (9923 US Highway 20 W.) at 8:00 am on the mornings of Feb. 10th, and the 24th. The tour is $75 for adults, $50 for children.
Birds: ducks, showevelers, buffleheads, pelicans, coots, killdeers, redhears, cranes, widgeons, gadwalls, northern pintails, kingfishers
East of I-94, south of Tower Rd.
Eagles flock to these peaceful pools for their thriving fish population. The area is also home to more than 200 other avian species for excellent bird watching. Parking is available at the Erickson Woods Picnic Grove on the north side of Willow Road, just east of I-94.
Birds: warblers, cuckoos, thrushes, wood ducks, common loons, red-tailed hawks, sparrows, common goldeneyes, American kestrels, least bitterns
Near N. Mooseheart Rd. and
N. Lincolnway St.
Watch eagles soar over the nearby Fox River, or try to spot the pair who have made Mooseheart their home for the past several years. Park at Mooseheart on the weekends or cross the river and check out the Red Oak Nature Center.
Birds: dark-eyed juncos, henslow’s aparrows, cooper’s hawks, eastern meadowlark, bobolinks, yellowthroats, dickissels, song sparrows, aspreys
Schwiebert Riverfront Park
17th St. & 1st Ave.
The lock and dam at this location stops the water from freezing, which keeps the eagles coming back year after year. Parking is available at the park. You can also join a Bald Eagle Safari with local guide Bob Motz, who provides spotting scopes and eagle expertise. To set up a tour, contact Motz at 309-269-3922 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Birds: cliff swallows, warblers, vireos, waterfowls, shore birds, cranes, woodcocks
Illinois State Nature Preserve
5809 N Forest Park Dr.
Climb one of the many bluffs in this nature preserve that provide sweeping view of the Illinois River. The Forest Park Nature Center and Peoria Audubon Society both offer tours to help visitors spot the eagles that frequent the area. Parking is available at the Nature Center.
Birds: warblers, vireos, tanagers, nesting hawks, worm-eating warbler, Kentucky warbler, ovenbird, American redstart, Louisiana waterthrush
W Grass Lake Rd.
Several bald eagle nests have been recorded in the area over the past few years, particularly around Ackerman Island. Parking is available at 27804 W. Grass Lake Rd. Antioch.
Birds: water fowls, gulls, white pelicans
South of E. 103rd St., west of S. Stony Island Ave.
If you’re lucky, you might be able to spot some eagles near Chicago’s south side. Eagles have been known to nest near the city’s largest body of water.
Birds: black-crowned night-herons, Least Bitterns, great egrets, common moorhens, ring-billed and herring gulls, yellow-headed blackbirds
501 E. Romeo Rd.
Eagles can be spotted almost daily over Isle a la Cache, a small island and forest preserve on the DuPage River. Parking is available at the Isle a la Cache Museum, which also offers winter birding classes.
Birds: geese, gulls, pheasants, starlings, cardinals, mallards