As a kid in Galesburg, Dan Westergren didn’t exactly dream of photographing bald eagles one day. “I don’t think I ever saw an eagle when I was growing up there in the ’70s,” he says. But conservation efforts increased the regal birds’ numbers, and they now flock to Illinois for its friendly habitats, especially the open water often found around river locks and dams in winter. Dan, an outdoors photographer who spent 25 years with National Geographic, follows.
Open water draws eagles looking for fish. “They move south in winter to get away from the ice up north,” Dan says. And the promise of dramatic shots beckons him. So between gigs in places like Antarctica and Australia, he spends time in Alton, Grafton and other prime eagle-watching spots.
Dan relies on two main tools: binoculars and a camera with a serious telephoto lens. He says amateurs can try a hack called digiscoping—using an adapter to connect a digital camera (or smartphone) to a bird-watching spotting scope.
Dawn and dusk are the best times to photograph eagles, especially a little before sunrise. “You can catch them as they’re starting to get active,” Dan says. Plus, “it’s the best light.”
The Beall Mansion bed-and-breakfast inn offers eagle getaway packages.
Along the Mississippi River, the sky is full of eagles at Lock and Dam 18. In 2018, the largest numbers of adults were recorded on January 3 (491) and 10 (453).
Both Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks attract large eagle populations in winter, thanks to the nearby Plum Island Eagle Sanctuary on the Illinois River. Watch eagles from the top of Starved Rock or catch an eagle trolley tour from the park lodge.
Weekend guided tours lead groups to the top of the historic clock tower on Arsenal Island in Rock Island for prime views of eagles. You also can schedule a bald eagle safari in the area, led by retired biology teacher Bob Motz.
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