Illinois a winter haven for bald eagles

February 26, 2014

By Jim Hagerty
Staff Writer

While snow falls, temperatures drop and rivers freeze, bald eagles are flocking to Illinois in increasing numbers.

This year, those who battle the elements won’t see too many birds torpedo down to grab fish, as ice covers most open waters. Instead, more eagles can be seen along shorelines.
As waters (including the Rock River) freeze, eagles move south to fish. This sends them by the hundreds to the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, where they get their fills in the open locks and dams. The farther south, the better the chances of seeing a dozen or more bald eagles diving in and out of the icy water at once.

Second only to Alaska, Illinois now houses a fast-growing winter bald eagle population. According to experts, what has droves of Midwesterners shuttering this winter is keeping more eagles here.

“The colder it is and the longer it stays cold, the more eagles you see,” John Knoble, an Army Corps of Engineers ranger, told the Chicago Tribune.

That means birds seen soaring through the skies of northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas in warmer months are now roosting on the banks of Illinois’ rivers. This year, where there’s commonly 10 to 15 birds on a given day, watchers may see 100 or more. Near Fulton last month, 1,000 bald eagles were seen in a single weekend along the Mississippi River.

The area along South Main Street near Morgan Street in Rockford continues to be a hotspot for local bald eagle viewing. Several birds have been seen perched on the Morgan Street Bridge and in ample numbers along the southern stretch of the Rock to Oregon, Ill.

Those birds are ending up at Starved Rock State Park in Oglesby, Ill., where people seeing a couple hundred birds in a weekend has been common this year. Around 7,500 attended the park’s Bald Eagle Watch Weekend Jan. 25-26.

Approximately 3,000 bald eagles call Illinois home each winter, three times as many as 20 years ago. The number of birds fluctuates in warmer months.

Between 1963 and 2007, 11,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles were living in the United States, according to the Illinois Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois. The bird was removed from the federal threatened and endangered species list in 2007 and the Illinois endangered list in 2009.

As adults, eagles have no predators. With an average lifespan of 20 years, birds die from old age, starvation or from disease. Eagles are rarely killed by other animals.

Individuals convicted of killing a bald or golden eagle face up to six months in jail and fines in the range of $500 to $500,000. That law does not apply to wind farm contractors — at least for the next three decades.
Last December, President Barack Obama extended the wind industry’s five-year exemption for killing eagles to 30 years, a measure supporters say is necessary by way of the green movement.

The law, which took effect Jan. 1, 2014, allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to grant incidental eagle “take” permits to wind farms and other long-term green energy projects. The law follows the average lifespan of most renewable energy projects.

Permits are issued to companies that agree to take part in adaptive eagle management measures that would reduce the impact on eagles throughout the life of each project. Permits will be reviewed by wildlife officials every five years.

“Renewable energy development is vitally important to our nation’s future, but it has to be done in the right way,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. “The changes in this permitting program will help the renewable energy industry and others develop projects that can operate in the longer term, while ensuring bald and golden eagles continue to thrive for future generations.”

Environmentalists don’t see it that way. According to bird enthusiasts, wind farms are becoming the leading cause of eagle deaths. Although an exact number of birds killed by wind turbines each year isn’t known, estimates range from 10,000 to 500,000. Eagles, wind industry officials say, represent only a small percentage of those deaths.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the leading cause of eagle deaths is exposure to organochlorine pesticides. Other causes of death include shooting, electrocution and various impact injuries. Figures from the American Wind Energy Association show approximately six bald eagles have ever been killed by wind turbines. That was before a North Carolina energy company was fined $1 million for killing more than 10.

In November 2013, Duke Energy Corp., of Charlotte, N.C., was fined $1 million for killing 14 eagles and 149 other migratory birds. In a plea agreement, Duke admitted it constructed two Wyoming wind farms in a manner that would result in bird deaths.

Meanwhile, Hoo Haven Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center, of Durand, Ill., will release two injured immature bald eagles back into the wild in May. The birds, named “Courage” and “Valor,” were brought to the facility last fall.

Valor, a six-month-old bird, was rescued in the Mississippi River by fishermen last October. It is believed the eagle flew into a power line. Seven-month-old Courage came to Hoo Haven last September, from Stillman Valley, Ill., where it was found covered in mud and unable to fly.

Both eagles will be released during a ceremony at the Torstenson Youth Conservation Education Center Saturday, May 10. The facility is at 13735 Cook Road, Pecatonica, Ill. The ceremony begins at 11 a.m.

From the Feb. 26-March 4, 2014 issue

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