Tour gives up close views of eagles

January 16, 2011 9:22:34 AM PST
Geri Williams peered into a spotting scope atop a tripod, getting a close-up view of a bald eagle in a tree in the Mississippi River. She was astonished. "He's gorgeous. Oh, my gosh," Ms. Williams said from the Rock Island bike trail near downtown. She and her husband Jim, who are from Sterling, were among many people to take guided tours of eagle-watching sites during Bald Eagle Days.

"That is just spectacular," Ms. Williams said of seeing the majestic national bird through a Swarovski telescope, which provided magnification of 60 times. She and her husband have attended Bald Eagle Days before but never the tours.

"We just went through the center before," Mr. Williams said. "This is better than seeing (the eagles) handled inside."

Ms. Williams also was surprised to hear the squawking of the eagles off the Rock Island riverfront. "It's kind of a tiny sound for a big bird. You expect a larger noise."

Led by two friendly retired teachers, the recent afternoon tour in a small school bus had the feeling of a field trip. After boarding in the QCCA Expo Center parking lot, visitors received a bald eagle fact sheet and JoAnn Whitmore -- a former second-grade teacher in Coyne Center and Sherrard -- tossed out questions.

We learned that both sexes of eagle look the same, with a white head, white tail, brownish-black body, yellow feet and an 8-foot wingspan. You can tell a mature eagle from an immature one because the younger one has a dark brown head and body and pale yellow-gray eyes.

The head and tail become white when the eagle is 4 or 5 years old, Ms. Whitmore said. Both kinds were seen at the three locations the 50-minute tour stopped at -- including the riverfront next to the former Dock restaurant in Davenport, and on Arsenal Island off the bridge on the Rock Island side.

Both Ms. Whitmore and "birding buddy" Mary Lou Petersen (a retired Pleasant Valley Junior High science teacher) carried spotting scopes and binoculars to train on their winged prey.

"Yesterday along here, there were 22, which was really nice," Ms. Petersen said of a small island near the Expo Center. "They'd already fed well, had everything they needed to eat. They were just relaxing."

In addition to hunting fish in the open water, bald eagles love to snatch road kill and baby (or fetal) pigs, she noted.

"They love pork," Ms. Petersen said. "On San Juan Island, off Washington State years ago, somebody had brought in European hares, and all these rabbits were around. Cars would hit them and the eagles never had to do any hunting on their own. They just ate their hares."

"It's amazing they can tell where to go" to find food, Mr. Williams said.

Craig Wieczorkiewicz and his wife, Laura, came from Ottawa, where they often have attended a bald eagle festival at Starved Rock State Park. This year it's Jan. 22-23.

"We wanted to see the eagles at a different place," Mr. Wieczorkiewicz said. "It's real cool to see them. It's pretty neat."

He especially liked Bald Eagle Days compared to the eagle days in Ottawa because Starved Rock doesn't provide guided tours to spot the birds.

"These tours are good so people know where to go," Ms. Whitmore said.

Eagles can fly up to 44 miles per hour, and sleep (or roost) in dense trees and ravines, Ms. Petersen said, noting a popular place is Milan Bottoms. They like to stay out of the wind but don't go back to their nests except to raise their young, she said.

"We had some good sightings," Ms. Whitmore said of the weekend, which included groupings of five eagles together. "You never know from one day to the next where they're going to be."

"It's just fun," Ms. Petersen said of eagle-watching, which she's been leading for 15 years at Bald Eagle Days.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)