To See Eagles
by Ross Thompson
After a lot of talk about making an eagle-watching trip, my friends Tom Olson, Dan Norton and I set out for Rock Island, Monday, January 18th (1999). We had checked the weather report Sunday night and expected no trouble but near Peoria we saw a state truck spreading salt. It wasn't snowing; there was no ice - did he know something we didn't? Northwest of Peoria on I-74 we ran into blowing snow and the roads were icy. The wind got up to 35 or 40 miles per hour and cars were going off the road, but these intrepid birdwatchers were determined to see our eagles. Determined, that is, until a State policeman at Galesburg changed our minds for us. We were just 40 miles short of our goal when he ordered us to turn around and go back - all roads completely closed ahead.
On Wednesday, January 20th we tried again. This time it was fog from Peoria to Rock Island, but we made it. About 10 a.m. the fog was just burning off so I decided to check the parking lot at Lock and Dam 14 which is about ten miles north of Davenport, Iowa on Rt. 67 (turn right when exiting I-74 when you cross the bridge). At the dam we saw about 35 or 40 birds on the ice and on the tow heads, but mostly roosting in the trees downstream from the dam. A local man pulled in and told us not to waste our time on the "few, stray" birds that were here; that if we really wanted to see eagles we should take Rt. 67 south through Davenport to the first stoplight south of Credit Island Park, then turn left onto Concord Road. Concord turned out to be a minor road lined with a sewer plant and junk yards, but the road follows the river south for a mile or so, then goes under the I-280 bridge, then dead-ends at another junk yard.
As soon as we turned onto Concord Rd. we started to see eagles. We stopped at a boat launching ramp where we saw 17 eagles in one place. That number grew rapidly as soon as we set up my spotting scope and began to see the birds out on the ice and back in the trees. Our local "guide" had said we should see Golden Eagles as well as Bald, and sure enough, we spotted one bird separated from the others which we could confirm as a Golden. We continued south on Concord seeing large numbers of birds in sight the entire length of the road.
Our conservative count was 135 to 150 eagles including 3 Goldens - and we were careful to count going only one way, not out and back again, which would have counted many birds twice. We got to the point where single birds were ignored; anything less than at least five to ten birds in a group was a waste of time. See how easily we can be spoiled?
At about noon we toured Credit Island Park and saw, in addition to ten eagles, two black squirrels (melanistic phase grays) which I am told are common in the area. Our next concern was to get to Jim's Barbecue Heaven in Rock Island. I found Jim's about ten years ago on an eagle weekend and have gone back several times since. The only directions I can give: cross the Arsenal Island bridge to Rock Island from Davenport, turn left at the stop sign, then go two blocks east (on left past the stop light). I think it's on 16th Street. The food is good. After a fine lunch we went back to the Rock Island arsenal and drove around looking for birds but didn't see any. I recommend the Island tour. The buildings date from the 1860s. There is a Civil War prison site and a Confederate cemetery as well as a National cemetery. The base has a very nice museum which we bypassed this time, having seen it before.
Around 2 p.m. we started back to Decatur having seen more eagles than we could have imagined, and after adding a Golden Eagle to Dan Norton's life list. In addition to eagles, we saw waterfowl (mostly mallards) and the usual little brown birds. On the way home we counted twenty Red-tailed Hawks and one large unknown hawk. One Red-tail was sitting on a light standard at the I-155 interchange in Lincoln. We saw the same bird on our way up and on our way back. Gasoline at Lincoln was only 77.9 cents per gallon so that cut our expenses -- except, of course, that we made the trip twice, to see eagles once!
Tom, Dan and I had a great time and recommend the trip to everyone. I have gone to organized eagle-day events in the Quad Cities, but was just as well satisfied to make my own way and get off the beaten track. On this trip luck and an interested and friendly stranger made for an outstanding experience in spite of seeing, on that first try, a Coke truck off the highway and a Suburban pulling a trailer that had jack-knifed onto the median; in spite of trying to drive in dense fog and total white-out conditions! It was all worth it!
copyright 1999 Ross Thompson, all rights reserved
Eagle graphics - US Fish & Wildlife Service