FULTON, Ill. — Looking out at Lock and Dam No. 13 on Saturday, about 10 bald eagles circled the small gap of moving water, but they weren’t alone.
Looking past those above the water and into the brush on the Iowa side of the river, more and more bald caps could be seen through the trees the harder one looked. One tree held 36 bald eagles.
Russ and Nicholas Mussmann took advantage of the migration pattern that brought the birds to the Gateway area as they participated in the annual Clinton Bald Eagle Watch. Nicholas, who has never seen so many birds, enjoyed the sight and the live animal demonstrations at Clinton Community College.
Russ said he kept seeing "just one after the other.”
“It’s a good opportunity,” Russ said. “Years ago, when I was growing up, we didn’t have as many eagles as we have now.”
The bald eagle, once on the endangered species list, is on the upswing. Jeramie Strickland, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, spoke about the service’s initiative to regulate lead bullets when hunting. The eagles, which find shot carcasses or innards from a hunted animal, eat the lead-infected body and suffer severe lead poisoning. This narrative was a common thread of community insight at the Lock and Dam.
Alan Anderson, of the FWS, said human interaction tends to stress the birds and makes them use more energy flying rather than staying warm. However, Lock and Dam No. 13 was just far enough away that spectators could come by the bus load without disturbing them.
From Minnesota to about St. Louis, the birds will try to stay ahead of water-freezing temperatures. They travel to areas, like lock and dams, that provide a break from the iced-over Mississippi River. Nearly 130 eagles showed up at the Fulton lock and dam to hunt Saturday morning.
Anderson, a 33-year service member, knows how to handle the birds. He’s caught them and attached satellite transmitters to their 10-pound bodies. His favorite thing about bald eagles is their feathers. They look like smoke, he said, and they have multiple colors in them.
“It’s just beautiful,” Anderson said.
When an eagle is young, it is entirely brown. As it ages, the eagle gains a white cap, yellow beak and yellow talons. Eagles take about 4 1/2 to 5 years to become an adult.
To Strickland, the annual Bald Eagle Watch, in its 34th year, is important because it gives people a chance to learn – not only about the animals, but about conservation and nature as well.
“I look forward to engaging with the people and seeing them smile,” he said, speaking about the educational piece of the day. “Of course (we teach) about protecting the environment, but also making people aware of how they can have a positive effect on nature.”
The day showcased aspects of what the FWS protects and tries to conserve, and there are service members on hand to answer any questions.
“So they can see how they fit in on a broader mission,” Strickland said.