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Bald Eagle checks its catch.
Bald Eagle checks its catch.

Iowa (and Illinois) Part IV
Eagles along the Mississippi, February 17-19, 2007
[Photos] [2004 Report] [2005 Report] [2006 Report]

To this casual observer, the conditions at Lock and Dam #18 near Burlington, Iowa and #5 near Winona, Minnesotaappeared to be similar this week. There was about 100 feet of open water below each dam, and the rest of the Mississippi River around both structures was frozen. But there were hundreds of bald eagles (reportedly 900) pulling fish out of the water at #18, while 300 miles north there was only one attempting it at #5. My last eagle sighting of the week was the lone eagle diving at the water at #5 without success. Eventually he gave up and soared away.

I made about a dozen stops in my mad dash up the Mississippi. I was going from the southeast corner of Iowa to the Minneapolis airport, and I had three days to do it. Although there were eagles all along the great river, notably at #13 near Fulton, Ill., there just weren't the photo opportunities that the massive numbers at #18 provided.

Eagle on the ice.
Eagle on the ice.

My journey actually started Feb. 14, the day the airline passengers were held hostage by the airlines in the Northeast. Although my experience didn't quite match what was inflicted on passengers on other flights, I spent three hours jammed into a motionless aircraft in Boston, and was nearly six hours late when I finally arrived in Minneapolis. After taking a couple days to complete some chores in South Dakota, I made a beeline for Keokuk, Iowa to find some eagles. The Keokuk waterfront below #19 has been a reliable spot on my three previous trips, but when I got into town the morning of the 17th and saw open water and only a few eagles, I decided to move on. I always stop at the Fort Madison waterfront to see if there's an "Eagle on a Stick" opportunity, but it wasn't evident this time around. I made it to Burlington in time for lunch, which left the entire afternoon for #18.

It was very windy, but I got some decent shots. Conditions were much calmer in the morning, but with the number of sites I still wanted to visit, I only stayed at #18 a little longer than an hour. If I had known then what I know now, I would have lingered several more hours. As it was, I headed toward #14 in the Quad Cities, hoping to see some fishing action. There was lots of open water and only a couple of eagles, so I kept moving. At #13 there were a couple hundred eagles and some happy eagle watchers, but the birds really weren't flying near the observation area. With the sky clouding over, I watched for a while but the only photos I took were for future reference of the nest near the dam.

Wings over the Mississippi.
Wings over the Mississippi.

I saw eagles at most of the other dams I stopped at as I drove northward along the river, but not in any numbers. However, the number of ice fishermen increased, so there must be some fish in the river other than at #18.

Comparing the four trips I've take to the Mississippi, 2004 had good numbers but was a bit disappointing due to overcast, 2005 was simply great, 2006 was mostly disappointing due to warm weather dispersing the birds, and 2007 was great at #18 but nowhere else. Unfortunately I can't count on my schedule matching up with the best conditions, but when it does it is quite memorable.

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Photos 1998-2007 by Thomas O'Neil