Bird Watchers Flock To Illinois To Catch Sight Of Bald Eagles

The harsh winter has caused headaches for many in the Midwest, but there's a silver lining for some bird watchers looking for bald eagles. Jenna Dooley of member station WNIJ explains how this harsh winter is helping attract them to an unusual spot in Illinois.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sloppy roads are part of what we humans have to deal with in wintry weather. For some magnificent birds the freezing temperatures and ice mean a change in feeding habits.

Jenna Dooley, of member station WNIJ, takes us to a place where these birds have people flocking to get a glimpse.

JENNA DOOLEY, BYLINE: An hour and a half south of Chicago, Amber Ruland and her four children are bundled up in brightly colored winter coats. It's about 15 degrees here and they're on the lookout for bald eagles. This lock and dam along the Illinois River attracts both young and mature birds. Sometimes they're difficult to spot perching high atop trees along the river. Other times they swoop overhead displaying their magnificent six-foot wingspan.

AMBER RULAND: Wow. Oh, he's coming this way.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Look. Look. Wait.

DOOLEY: Ruland says her family was lucky to have a few extra weeks to see so many eagles this close.

RULAND: We saw their official eagle-watching weekend was like the end of January. And we knew it was still a little bit colder. So we were waiting for the weather to warm up just a little bit.

DOOLEY: More than 3,000 bird watchers flocked to this public viewing area recently. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park ranger Gary Shea says the average visitor stays about an hour and can expect to see at least a handful of eagles, as they dive into the river for muskies and shad.

GARY SHEA: Locks and dams are an open buffet to them. There's open water on the backside of the dams. It's constantly churning and it's the only place they can get in and get some fish.

DOOLEY: Shea says the colder it stays north of Illinois, the worse the ice and the longer these eagles will likely stick around here.

John Shirey came here from Chicago to see the birds. He's an amateur photographer who says he'll take about 500 pictures today. He says standing in the cold waiting for a group of eagles is well worth it.

JOHN SHIREY: I saw these birds just sitting on the ice and I left my kids in the car and their mom. And I said I got to go look at these birds. And I snuck through this forest and I got my money shot.

DOOLEY: Park ranger Gary Shea says visitors are getting a good lesson about nature.

SHEA: Sometimes people will want to impose human values on an eagle and say they are coming for breakfast or coming for lunch. Eagles don't have a time schedule for when they eat. They eat when they're hungry. They'll take something when they can.

DOOLEY: And for now, on this unfrozen stretch of the Illinois River, there's plenty for them to eat.

For NPR News, I'm Jenna Dooley in DeKalb, Illinois.

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