Mike Miller has had his eagle eyes trained on the Illinois River Valley for a long time, and he says there’s a lot more of the national bird to see around these parts than in years’ past.
The Peoria Park District supervisor of environmental and interpretive services and Community Word contributor has participated in the annual winter bald eagle counts on the Illinois River for the last 35 years.
Miller surveys the roughly 90-mile stretch of river running from Marshall County to Havana, in Mason County. For many years, he said the only bald eagles to be seen in the winters were the migratory birds flying down from the upper Midwest in search of open waters.
“You’d see large clusters of eagles kind of hanging around. But then a new dynamic started happening,” Miller said. “And that’s we started getting nesting eagles along the Illinois River. 35 years ago, when I was doing our eagle count, there was one nest and kind of that 90 mile stretch. Now there’s dozens of nests in that same stretch.”
Unlike migratory eagles, their nesting counterparts reside in the Illinois River Valley year-round. That makes them a little more territorial, Miller said.
“Now that we have so many more nesting eagles on the Illinois River, we’re seeing a little bit of change in the dynamic of where migrating eagles are hanging out,” he said.
That also has a positive impact for bald eagle watchers. Miller said while winter is still a good time to spot eagles flying along the Illinois River, it’s now possible to enjoy the activity year-round due to the proliferation of nesting birds.
He said the key is to find a good public access point on open waters along the river. While binoculars can be helpful, Miller said a spotting scope is even better.
“A lot of times you’re looking at a bird that’s over a mile away. And so, binoculars will kind of tell you there’s a bird there,” he said. “A spotting scope will say, I can see the color of their eyes.”
Miller said the rebound of eagle populations is a great example of an environmental success story. By the early 1960s, the lower 48 U.S. states were down to just a few hundred nesting eagles. Humans were largely to blame, due to habitat destruction, hunting, and the insecticide DDT, which made eagle egg shells brittle.
The bird was added to the Endangered Species List in 1967. Efforts to protect the bald eagle population helped the species recover to the point that it was removed from the list altogether in 2007.
“I think the comeback of the bald eagle from the brink of extinction is just really a compelling story,” Miller said. “And it shows how we can change our ways and have a positive result in the environment. There’s not a lot of wins like that.”
Miller said the concerted effort to save the bald eagle from extinction is an example that should be followed with other endangered species.
“We’re in no short supply of environmental problems. We’re in short supply of willpower to solve them,” he said. “And I think bald eagle comeback really shows how we can take that next step and have positive results.”