Category Archives: Eagle Sightings

While out Fishing the Other Day

While I was out fishing a semi urban stretch of the Fox River at the end of January, I was joined by a couple of red tailed hawks and a bald eagle. I wrote it down later like this:

Drifting up stream on the air currents came the large black shape of an eagle. It slowly cruised above the river and occasionally drifted out over the tree tops. The ducks didn’t like any of this. They all lifted off the water. Some seemed to feign an attack on the eagle, a foolhardy gesture at best, but most simply took off squawking.

Once the eagle was out of sight, a couple of red tailed hawks appeared. They seemed to be playing in the treetops feigning bites, then they would take off together to hover over the river. They never got far from each other and it continued to look like they were playing. I’ve never seen them behave like this, usually I don’t see more than one.

Even in somewhat of an urban area these birds have learned to adapt to our presence. The hawks don’t surprise me so much, I’ve been seeing them around for a long time just about everywhere I go. But for an eagle to slip right into these urban areas comes as a surprise. It’s just not something I would have ever expected.

My first sighting of an eagle on the Fox River happened along this same stretch around 2003. Along the shore runs the warmer waters of a treatment plant discharge. During the winter it’s ice free and attracts all kinds of birds. There’s an old dead tree, completely stripped of bark, where the eagle likes to sit and survey the river below. I’ve described this stretch numerous times in the past, but this will do:

For such an urban area, this stretch gives a pretty good illusion of being more remote. On the other side of the river a pretty busy road runs right along the shore. It was just far enough away that any traffic noise is pretty well muffled. Once behind an island it becomes pretty simple to ignore the urban views altogether.

The side with the warm water is a flood plain that’s never been developed. A wide open field of tall grasses, a shore line of trees that create picture perfect undercut banks. Further down the trees become more extensive and cover more of the shore and land. While walking through it, especially in the warmer months, the dense trees and brush obliterate all signs of human artifacts and for a brief time you could be anywhere that people don’t go.

The end of that day had me walking through the field back to my car. I was tracking coyote, which seemed to be tracking squirrel and raccoons. The raccoons seem to take the same paths to and from the river on a regular basis. The squirrel tracks seem to be more sporadic. I’ve heard that they never find 90 percent of the nuts they bury. Their tracks in the snow indicate that they spend a lot of time looking for that 90 percent, even if never found.

From a distance I thought I was seeing pheasant tracks cutting across my path.

When I got up on top of the tracks their size said this was no pheasant. They were as big as my hand. They came from the rivers edge and headed inland. At first I thought they might be from a blue heron, but I’ve never seen a blue heron walk inland like this. I followed the tracks and they took paths through low brush. No 4 foot tall bird would be able to do this. Then at one spot, the tracks disappeared. I looked up the tracks when I got home, definitely an eagle, either out for a stroll or on the hunt.

Further down the trail there were more tracks. These looked just like the others only smaller. This time they appeared out of nowhere and it looked like there was some kind of scuffle.

The scuffle was taken a couple of feet away into some brush. I knew these were the tracks of the red tailed hawk and it was determined to get hold of something.

And then like the eagle tracks, they were gone. Nothing walked away from this scuffle, the victor flew off.

This got me thinking about a trip through West Virginia many years ago. I was on my way to a rod and gun club outside Richmond Virginia for a week to wander woods and fish. I usually went alone and if I was lucky, I would run into no one while there. It was about two in the morning and in the West Virginia mountains I could only pick up National Public Radio, my radio listening choice anyway.

They were discussing The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry:

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I remember being bothered by this. I enjoy the peace and quiet of woods and water without the presence people. I prefer the absence of people most of the time. But the peace of wild things is a human construct. We look out at what we believe is beauty. We immerse ourselves in the silence of our surroundings. Gentle breezes rustling through trees while we lay back on a hammock can lull us into sleep.

This got me thinking, wild things don’t experience peace . . .

Fox River Eagles so far for 2011

It seems that the area ponds froze over sooner than usual. December was a pretty cold month that had almost all of the days below normal. This brought a lot more ducks and geese to the river. More than I had seen in the 14 or so years I’ve been paying attention.

Ducks and geese are food, at least to some predators. The top flying predators around here lately are the bald eagles that have been increasing in numbers with each passing year. This year it seems I started seeing them earlier than usual. That coincides with the increase in possible dinner items I guess.

It’s become an almost daily occurrence to be able to stand on my front porch and watch them cruising the tree tops along the river. Considering I’m at the top of a good 40 or 50 foot tall hill, these birds are cruising at tree top level for the river. For me, they are practically at eye level.

The river is just a two minute walk down the hill. A two minute drive gets me to the Yorkville dam, the thing responsible for keeping this stretch of the river relatively free of ice. I was hanging out there today for a bit. No particular reason. Curious to see what types of birds have been gathering.

The eagle came drifting up the river. I expected all the birds to bolt, but the geese just sat there. Strength in numbers I guess and it probably helps to be almost the size of the eagle. I’ve had some pretty pissed off geese chase me down and along the river. Not sure if even an eagle was willing to put up with that. But the flock of ducks sitting in the shallow rivers didn’t like the eagles presence at all. They gave out a simultaneous squawk and started to jump, but then thought better of taking to the air with that thing around and wound up hitting the water hard only 50 feet away.

Later in the day I was hanging out as usual on the porch. The eagle was heading down stream. The sun was waning and I guess it was heading home. If this is one of the same eagles, there seems to be 4 of them around this year, it’s cruising range for the day is a good 10 miles. I may have to try following it back and forth one day just to see how far they cruise.

So far no pictures. Either I don’t have my camera at hand or the eagle is too far away . . . see that black speck, that one right there!!! That’s the eagle!!!

The opportunity may arise yet.

The influx of waterfowl on the river seems to be attracting other predators. This week besides the eagle, I’ve seen a few red tail hawks, a great horned owl and a number of falcons. Considering the size of these predators, maybe it’s not the waterfowl there after.

Maybe that’s why I haven’t seen the rabbits in the last few weeks.

I am down to 3 squirrels every morning from the usual 8.

Fox River Eagles – Winter 2010

I wrote this around the first week of February 2010. The eagle sightings seem to be the highest throughout the month of January. Less open water in the area, but stretches of the river can still be open. Seems to attract them.
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The plan on Sunday was to go explore an abandoned and collapsed house I had found near Orchard Road. My daughters seemed to have inherited this exploratory nature from me and Leah was up for a little exploring. Whenever the two of us head out on one of these adventures we get the same warning from my wife . . . if you guys get arrested for trespassing, don’t call me.

I have walked along the area where the abandoned house is for the past ten years. Countless times I have passed the hill where the house sits. I never saw it till the fall of 2009. It stood out like a sore thumb even though there were still a fair amount of leaves on the trees. Funny how you can walk past a spot a hundred times and still find something completely new. I knew now that with the undergrowth gone and some fresh snow on the ground it would stand out even more.

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While trying to find an ice and snow free spot to park the car, we cruised down the road that runs along the river. There was a car parked on the side with a foot long lens sticking out the window. Of course I had to stop to see what they were photographing. It was a bald eagle sitting on a log on the other side of the river. I know this stretch like the back of my hand and where it was sitting is very shallow. Huge schools of carp sit out there sunning themselves even in the summer. To get past the eagle into the deeper channel behind the island, they have to go past the spot where the eagle was sitting. That stretch is so shallow that half the carp sticks up out of the water as they swim the shallows.

Perfect feeding spot.

I took a few shots with my point and shoot, but they pretty much suck. You can tell it’s an eagle, kind of.

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We sat and watched as the eagle launched into the air and starting heading down the river. It’s wings initially looked like the tips were touching the water. I was jealous of the person in the car with the long lens. They were getting some good shots. We went to find our parking spot. The car with the photographer was leaving the area and I had to flag them down. I introduced myself to new found fellow Fox River Valley explorers Larry and Deb Granat. They were kind enough to trust a total stranger wanting to trade email addresses just to get better pictures of an eagle. Winds up that they live about a mile down river from where I live. They had seen the eagle cruising the river up stream and decided to see if they could follow it. They wound up at Saw-wee-kee about 5 miles from where they started.

I need to get me a camera like they have.

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My daughter and I wandered down the railroad tracks east of Orchard Road. We talked of other times I’ve had her out exploring abandoned things. She seems to have picked up another one of my traits. She finds herself thinking about the house, the people that lived there and what their lives must have been like. Why would they just get up and leave a house and never come back. Why not at least give it to someone in their family. Some of the things we’ve found looked like someone was going to be back at any moment, even though we know they had been gone for decades.

This one was different. Mother nature was quickly winning the war.

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The living room area of the house seems to have taken the biggest blows. Trees were growing up out of the collapsed wooden floor.

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We wandered around the house kicking through the snow and piles of stuff that had been dumped all around. A food cellar was about 50 feet away. Ball jars used for canning were scattered everywhere. Old clothes line poles were standing stark amid saplings. An old aluminum coffee pot lay in another heap of garbage.

The open kitchen door looked inviting in an odd way. Waiting for someone to step in.

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Only, part of the kitchen had been dragged out into the yard.

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The old fireplace was the most impressive. Still standing solid. Made of the limestone from the river. It barely showed any wear. Through the collapsed wall of the house you could see into the living room with the fireplace.

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My daughter wanted to go inside to look around, but the floors were too far rotted and gone. Normally this doesn’t stop us, but this house was built up on limestone columns and the floor had collapsed around them. It was impossible to tell if there were any holes under the house. Best this time to play it safe. The kitchen looked like it had been trashed by others that had raided the place, but you could still see the old wallpaper patterns and other decorative touches now sometimes hanging from the walls.

She insisted she had to have one picture of her somewhere in or on the building. We compromised and I let her jump up on a windowsill after thoroughly testing that it wouldn’t collapse around her.

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While we were there we heard red tailed hawks screeching over head. There were 3 of them making a racket. As they came over the clearing where the house stood, we could see that they were chasing the eagle. The eagle landed in a tree practically over our heads, but the hawks attacked it before I could get a picture. The eagle was moving like it was more annoyed then afraid. It never seemed in all that big of a hurry to get away.

Fox River Eagles – Winter 2009

I saw my first Fox River eagle in the winter about 6 years ago. It was drifting lazily on a slight wind above open water somewhere between Montgomery and Oswego. It could have been 7 years ago. At 53 years old, it seems that my ability to keep track of passing time is deteriorating. I’ve mentioned this to my parents. They just laugh. Apparently it gets worse.

A friend of mine had seen the eagle a few days earlier in that same area. This was a time when I fished the Fox throughout the winter. When ice had crept onto and over sections of the river, you could always count on the outflow of the crap plant between Montgomery and Oswego to keep a section of the river open.

The outflow is crystal clear year round, with its summer temperature around 70 degrees no matter how warm the river got. During the winter the outflow was pretty much constantly at 55 degrees. You could take 2 steps into the flow of the river and get a temperature reading of 33 degrees. Back in the outflow, 55 degrees. It was this way for a good half mile down. I’m sure it went further, but a half mile is the furthest I ever went.

This is where the eagle liked to hang out. When there were thick ice flows on the water and a thick layer of ice had covered the rest of the river, a sometimes dense layer of steam hugged the west shore attesting to the waters warmth. This warmth attracted all kinds of fish. It was not unusual to go out in January and catch a combination of smallmouth and largemouth bass, white bass, bluegills, crappie, catfish, walleye, carp, suckers and shad.

Near the end of the half mile stretch of ice free water stood a tall dead tree stripped bare of its bark. In this tree, the eagle liked to perch on a branch hanging out over the river. It was a perfect location. From that view point it could look down on all the fish species mentioned above, as well as a large number of geese and ducks that were also attracted to the warmer water. At that point it only had to decide on two things, was it hungry and what did it have a taste for. A veritable predators smorgasbord.

Every year during the winter I could count on the eagle cruising the area in search of something to eat. During the warmer months, it was nowhere to be found.

March 2005 found me building out what would become my short lived canoe livery on the shore of the Fox River in Montgomery. Early in that month I was out front working when I heard ducks flying up stream making a hell of a racket. I looked up to see the eagle flying up stream. It barely had to move it’s large powerful wings to keep up a good pace. About 20 feet behind it were a half dozen ducks squawking louder than I had ever heard ducks squawk before. Their wings were beating in a wild frenzy compared to the eagle as they chased it down. They all flew up stream toward the dam and disappeared from sight.

A few minutes later I heard the racket coming back down stream. There was the eagle, again barely moving it’s wings to keep up a steady pace. Right behind it were the ducks still squawking wildly. Suddenly it seemed like the eagle had had enough of the noisy followers. It threw up its wings and stalled in mid air, did a somersault, flipped over and was suddenly flying directly into the small flock of ducks. I have never heard ducks make a sound much like a terrified scream, but this they did as they took off in 6 different directions to get away from annoyed eagle.

A very impressive simple show of strength.

The end of 2005 found me living in Yorkville, a half mile down stream of the dam and a two minute walk up the hill from the rivers edge. Because of the nearby dam, this stretch of the river is always open and never freezes during the winter. It draws hundreds of geese and ducks, plus a wide variety of other birds. A few miles down stream was a bridge over the river. From the bridge you could see the mouth of Big Rock Creek. If the river was iced over in this stretch, the water coming from the creek was always open. Not far up the river, Little Rock Creek flows into Big Rock. It too is never iced over. This means that they are probably both spring fed.

I took the following picture the other day showing this phenomena. May be a little hard to see the creek, but the river is covered in ice while the creek has none.

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Labor Day weekend, 2008, I was fishing far upstream on Little Rock Creek. At the time I wrote this down:

“Strange, the creek was only 60 degrees. That means it’s spring fed. I guess I’ll have to go find them.”

It’s rare that any water around here gets to that temperature that time of year. It’s usually more like bath water around then. I pretty much knew the creek was spring fed, but I was just getting around to proving it to myself.

Getting back to the eagles. . .

About a month after moving to Yorkville I was crossing the bridge near the mouth of Big Rock. The river was iced over, but the creek was open. Two eagles were drifting over the area close to the open water. Near Montgomery, I had never seen more than one eagle at a time. It was a treat to see a pair.

When I think about it, in three years I’ve never seen these creeks iced over. By comparison, Mill Creek, in the Batavia area, almost freezes solid. I have pictures of that and have walked far up stream in the winter months to ice fish some of the deeper pools I know.

I have seen the eagles every winter since then. Again, they disappear during the warmer months. Then this year was the most sightings I’ve had so far. In December, I was driving over the bridge further up stream on Big Rock Creek. Across the cattle fields, off in the distance was a huge nest high in the trees. First thought, that was the biggest damn squirrel nest I had ever seen. Then it hit me that at 3 or 4 feet across, it had to be the eagles nest.

What a perfect place to build a nest. It was overlooking Big Rock Creek and only about a half mile from where it joins the Fox. I know that throughout the winter there is some kind of fish species hanging out at the mouth. Especially carp and suckers. I also took a couple of pictures of the open creek. Geese again floating on the current. The ducks had taken off when they saw me coming. From an eagles stand point, what a perfect place to call home.

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I happen to have this bad habit of smoking cheap cigars. The need to have one hits me every few hours and I wind up outside the house I rent. As I mentioned, I live just up the hill from the edge of the river. I can’t see the river itself from this vantage point but can easily see the wall of trees that make up the river valley. In mid January I was standing out there puffing away when I saw two large birds drifting along at tree top level. They turned south toward me, drifted down and landed in the tree in my front yard. I was stunned. I had no camera. They perched there for barely 30 seconds, jumped up and drifted back to the river and turned down stream. I’m sure I’ll never see that again.

At the end of January, my daughter and I stopped on the bridge over the Big Rock Creek and took the following pictures.

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The untrained eye will say it’s a squirrels nest. The trained eye will be able to see even from a distance, that’s no squirrel nest. My daughter and I stood on the bridge debating whether to make the run along the creek to get a better picture. For me, that decision is simple. I’ve gone up that creek fishing well beyond where the nest was. Land owners believe they own the creeks, federal law says otherwise and I follow the federal laws. Landowners own up to the yearly high water mark and that’s it.

But cattle and bulls don’t know that.

We didn’t see either of those creatures around, but I wasn’t going to take chances with my daughter, though it wasn’t really her I was worried about. She’s on the school cross country team and runs like the wind. Me on the other hand, runs like a light breeze that couldn’t blow out a candle. I didn’t want her to be traumatized by seeing her dad trampled to death.

So we settled for the above pictures.

Even though I no longer have the interest to fish through the cold months, I still spend a fair amount of time outdoors. My daughters and I explore all the public land we can find all along the river and nearby creeks. After taking the pictures of the nest, we went to explore Hollenback Creek on the new forest preserve property. I had fished at the mouth of it many years ago and our goal was to follow it down to the Fox. We weren’t prepared for just how daunting that would be and agreed to come back in the warmer months and make that journey when we could walk down the middle of the creek.

So we wound up at the old Millbrook bridge just in time to see the two eagles drift lazily down the river. There wasn’t a lot of open water, so they drifted off to the north and disappeared over the tree line. Truly beautiful sight.

An hour and a half later, heading home, we were crossing over the Big Rock Creek bridge again. As we drove past, the eagle jumped up out of its nest and flew off. Of course no camera was at the ready. We circled back quickly, parked and waited, camera at the ready. After 15 minutes we realized we blew our only chance to capture the majestic bird.

In the following week, my wife was driving over the bridge and found a half dozen cars parked. People had binoculars and cameras at the ready. That was the first time any one else had been seen looking for the eagles.

A week later I had my daughter again. We went out toward the end of the day. The plan was to camp out on the bridge and wait for the eagle to come home for the evening. As we walked along the bridge we both commented we couldn’t see the nest. Then we saw a chunk of it, about half way down the tree. Now just a pile of sticks. We were heart broken, forgot to take pictures and talked about whether or not they would rebuild it in the same place.

The following pictures are the most recent shots of where the the nest was. I tried to take them from the exact vantage point of the other shots so I can compare the two.

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The nest is now completely gone. No remnant of it could be found anywhere. When you compare the before and after photos, it almost looks like the tree that it was in has disappeared. The sky line looks bare in the after photo. I wonder if the tree itself had broken up.

Still not up for trying to outrun cattle, so I may never know.