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Illinois is a prime state for wintertime eagle watching

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(The Center Square) – For a real February thrill, Bob Bryerton, program manager of the Forest Preserve District of Will County’s Plum Creek Nature Center near Beecher, Illinois, recommends taking a short winter hike to do some eagle spotting.

“They are really, really big,” he said. “Larger than anything else in our sky, with a 6-foot wingspan.”

More eagles spend the winter in Illinois than in any other state except Alaska.

“In the lower 48 in the wintertime, Illinois has the most eagles,” Bryerton said.

A hike as short as half an hour on a trail along an Illinois river or waterway often will reward you with an eagle sighting.

“When the water freezes in the north, eagles move a little bit south. Illinois seems to be the place where they can find open water,” Bryerton said.

Bring binoculars if you have them, but you don’t need them.

Up in the sky, eagles look something like turkey vultures and hawks. Turkey vultures rock more when they fly, Bryerton said. Their wings tilt up in a V-shape.

“Eagles will flap a little bit more than a vulture. They do glide a lot,” he said.

Hawks are smaller and more streamlined. Eagles have a bulkiness to them. They look heavy.

Look for a huge dark bird that is not tilting with the wind, Bryerton said.

“If the bird is flying like it is on a mission, in a direction that it is choosing, it is likely an eagle,” Bryerton said.

If you are lucky enough to see an adult eagle, the white head and the whitetail are the complete giveaway, Bryerton said.

It takes an eagle about five years to develop the white head and white tail that people expect to see on an eagle, Bryerton said.

“For the first five years, eagles might have various white patches on their body and maybe a little bit on their head, but for the most part, they are just a giant dark bird with some streakiness to them,” Bryerton said.

The other thing to look for is an oversized beak.

“If you can get any kind of look at the bill and the head, the eagle has a ridiculously large bill,” Bryerton said.

An eagle’s bill is much larger than a hawk’s bill.

“The eagle bill is made for catching fish and ripping stuff up,” he said.

No need to go to Will County to see the Eagles. Download the free app eBird at ebird.org for a database of reported eagle sighting locations near you.

In Will County, Bryerton recommends the Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon and the Rock Run Rookery Preserve in Joliet. Eagles love dams, Bryerton said. At Starved Rock Dam near Utica, the water stays open all winter so eagles congregate there.

“When water gets frozen in other places, eagles will move to any place where there is open water,” Bryerton said.