Fly Like An Eagle: Catching Sight of American Bald Eagles in Iowa

bald eagles in iowa

My first trip of 2017 was to Iowa. In January.

I know it’s not the sexiest of destinations. In fact it barely registers in people’s minds when they think of places to visit in the world, let alone in fucking January.

My arrival also marked Iowa as the 32nd state I have visited in the United States. Remember those flyover states everyone keeps talking about? They’re part of the United States, too. They greatly contribute to the economy, our country’s military services, and the environment. The reason for my visit was personal (to visit friends), but I was pleasantly surprised by one thing I saw in Iowa: bald eagles feeding in the Mississippi River.

Shocking: bald eagles feeding in the dead of winter? Shouldn’t they be in hibernation? (Yes, this is how ignorant I am. I know, I know they’re not bears.) I had to learn more about them and urged my friends to take us to the best observation spots. My friends set up a tour for us through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Visitor Center at Rock Island Arsenal where I learned all about America’s bald eagle.

Bald Eagles in the Quad Cities

Many people don’t realize that bald eagles flock to different regions of the United States. Primarily thought of as northern birds, the bald eagle’s range extends from most of Canada to all of the United States, and to northern Mexico. The sub-species that I observed in Iowa are northern bald eagles; they migrate south from Canada and Alaska to the lower 48 states during the winter. Southern bald eagles tend to flock to the American southeast and northern Mexico.

The reason for their presence is simple: they come to feed on the fish gathering in the cold, turbulent waters of the Mississippi River. Engineers have mastered the ability to keep the water flowing through the use of over a dozen locks and dams on the upper Mississippi River. During the winter, traffic along the river all but halts as the water freezes, giving the eagles uninterrupted feeding sessions. As the water freezes and ice pushes up against the locks and dams along the river, the fish move to the unfrozen portions of the water, essentially corralling in certain areas where the eagles are eagerly waiting.

Located in the Quad Cities on Rock Island Arsenal, a U.S. Army post, sits the Rock Island District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a group of dedicated park rangers who have been keeping a strict watch over this cherished animal. According to their website, during the months of December to February, rangers conduct surveys at 8:30am every Wednesday morning and release information on the same day for public viewing.

During the 2015-2016 season, a total of 1,736 bald eagles were spotted across 16 locks and dams along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. Based on the available research, it appears that these numbers have dwindled quite dramatically; there were a total of 8,756 eagle sightings during the 2012-2013 season.

bald eagles landing
Bald eagles landing after an afternoon in flight.

A Few Facts About the American Bald Eagle

Once considered an endangered species by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Conservation Online System (ECOS) now considers the American Bald Eagle “Delisted due to Recovery”. This is a relief. After all, the bald eagle remains our country’s national emblem. There were laudable efforts to increase their numbers as early as the 1940s (starting with the Bald Eagle Act of 1940). However, as of 1976 the bald eagle was nearing extinction due to the widespread use of DDT (pesticide) across the nation. Officials implemented increased protective measures and the bald eagle is now in safer territory. Nevertheless, it remains protected by federal laws such as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Lacey Act. (Read more about the history here.)

The bald eagle is a “raptor”, and is famous for its brown body and white head, replete with a golden beak. But did you know junior eagles are brown and spotted? They often go unnoticed when standing next to adult eagles, but they’re just as majestic when they take flight.

Keen eyesight, sharp talons, and the ability to lift 4-5 lbs of weight into the air put this bird at the top of the food chain. With wingspans reaching up to 85 inches, these birds are truly a sight to behold when they are in flight.

junior bald eagle
A junior bald eagle flying overhead. Notice its spotted body.

Photographing Bald Eagles in the Wild

I do not consider myself a professional photographer by any means. I knew I was out of my league when I saw the equipment on display. (I’m talking 600mm-1300mm.) Professional nature photographers and avid bird watchers park themselves along the locks and dams all damn day, waiting for the perfect eagle shot.

I’m a Floridian, and it was 18 degrees outside. I was fucking cold, and I didn’t plan on making everyone else suffer until I got the perfect shot. I was carrying a 55-200mm lens, which didn’t give me a lot of range  for photographing eagles catching fish in the Mississippi River.

The best views were from Lock and Dam 14, just outside of Le Claire, a small town known for its darling antique shops. If there’s anything I’ve learned from traveling, you have to move if you want to get the best shot. People are always going to walk in front of you, ruining what could have been that winning, Instagrammable shot. (Ugh, I’m actually rolling my eyes…I can’t believe I used the word “Instagrammable.” What have you done to me, social media?!) That being said, it’s also extremely important to respect the animals and environment, taking caution not to cause them any harm.

Lucky for me, I was the only person with a lightweight camera and lens. I switched from my bulky SLR to the Sony Mirrorless system 3 years ago and I haven’t looked back. I’ve used the Sony a6000 for two years and it is one of the best cameras I’ve ever owned. (I’ll be writing about my favorite aspects of the Sony mirrorless system in the near future. Stay tuned.) Since I wasn’t hindered by the weight of my gear, I could move closer without disturbing the bald eagles.

bald eagles dancing mid-air
Bald eagles dancing with each other in mid-air.

My friends noticed a bridge crossing over the dam to a small park with a tree in the center. An adult and a junior bald eagle sat perched at the top of the tree’s branches. We saw people walking their dogs and ambling about under the tree, so we knew it was okay to move closer. (We also confirmed its accessibility with one of the park rangers.) Just as I stepped off the bridge, the eagles took flight and began dancing around each other in mid-air. It was spectacular. My camera stayed glued to my face as I raced as close as I could get to the eagles. Fuck the cold: my fingers could fall off from frostbite, I didn’t care one bit.

Okay, don’t take that literally folks. Safety first.

After an exhilarating 20 minutes of photographing the bald eagles in flight, they disappeared down the river to hunt for some lunch. Half a dozen eagles dotted the trees looming over the parking lot as we headed back to our car. All in all, it was a very satisfying day for viewing the American Bald Eagle in its natural environment.

bald eagles perched in trees
Eagles sat perched in trees above the parking lot of Lock and Dam no. 14

Protecting Our Nation’s Bird and its Right to Live

Let me tell you a secret: the political atmosphere in the United States is really tense now.

(Seriously? Thank you, Captain Obvious.)

The future of our national parks and the protection of our environment is questionable at best. (To read more on our current President’s stance on climate change, please read this article by National Geographic.) I’m not an environmentalist, nor do I work for any National Parks working to protect our nation’s land and animals. I’m a mere mortal working 40-hour weeks at a hospital, without a clue about how to help prevent further environmental damage. Believe me: I’m just as lost as you are.

However, I have a really tiny voice thanks to this blog. (Hello gargantuan internet world! Is anyone reading this?! Can you hear me…anyone?) If I can convince one person to educate themselves or to donate to an organization working to defend the well-being of our country, then I will feel like I’ve accomplished something great.

This year, Leon and I made donations to the NRDC and the Sierra Club, in addition to other organizations. To understand what they do, please visit their websites. Both are honorable organizations who are working tirelessly to safeguard our planet and fight against climate change. Last but not least, if you would like to donate to a local group working to keep raptor species safe, you can send contributions to The RARE Group.

I have photographed wildlife in Yellowstone National Park, stood within a few feet of deer leaping in the Flatirons of Colorado, and grew up across from Everglades National Park. Watching wildlife in their natural environments is a thrilling experience. It is vital that we respect them, admire them from a distance, and do what we can to protect their lives. If you think donating money isn’t going to make a dent in the system, do what I do: educate yourself and have serious conversations with people. Take the time to inform not only yourself, but your friends and family. I know it may not seem like much, but it’s one small step forward. Finally, contact your local animal shelter if you notice any wildlife in danger. That’s honestly the most concrete step you can take if you aren’t an expert in the field.

I still stand by what I wrote in November. I love my country and will do what is necessary to defend its well-being. Just remember that we all leave lasting imprints upon this Little Blue Earth we call home. Make your efforts count.

Oh yeah, and recycle. Duh.

Catching sight of bald eagles in Iowa


There’s one affiliate link in this article: an Amazon link for the Sony a6000. If you buy it through this link, I get a small commission that helps support this blog at no cost to you. However, all other links in this article are included because they contain information that I believe is vital to the future of our country. If you don’t know where to start, Huffington Post released an article with a list of organizations that will benefit from your donations.

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