Mississippi River Lock and Dam # 15

Rock Island, IL

Trip Log - Feb. 2011




My Freezing Cold Quest for the Bald Eagles

"Wait, what does that title say about freezing and bald eagles?!"

(just kidding, eagles can't read :-)   To find out why this bird was flying almost inverted, please read on.)




6AM: As I prepared to leave on the bitter cold day following the Blizzard of 2011, my wife wondered out loud if I was crazy (about heading to the IL/IA border today to photograph birds - she knows I'm crazy in general ;-) ).  


11AM: I stood at Lock # 14 wondering the same thing my wife had.  While it was beautifully sunny, it was bitter cold (about 7 degrees Fahrenheit) plus a wind of 10-15 mph.  But my biggest problem was that I had not anticipated the lack of any good access to Lock #14.  From what I had read, #14 was the place to be in terms of reasonably close positions to the eagles, but it looked like the blizzard was going to preclude access to the nearby park on my preferred, Illinois side - the park was now buried under 18 inches of snow and there was no place to leave the car nearby anyway.  I scouted around a little (driving around the area and tromping through deep snow), but finally determined that this wasn't going to work.

Noon: After a lunch / warm-up break, I contemplated heading back home, but I concluded that since I had come this far, I may as well spend a few more hours checking out some of the other options for photographing Bald Eagles.   I didn't know it at the time, but a chance sighting of a sign would turn out to be very important to my trip.


2PM: No luck with Credit Island or Sunset Park (the park across from Credit Island), and I was giving up on Lock #15 since I couldn't find anyplace to pull over near the lock along Hwy 92 or 24th St (there were 3-4 foot snow banks along the roads).


As chance would have it, I saw a sign for the "Mississippi River Visitor Center."  Curious as to what that might offer and also wanting a restroom, I headed off for it.  Not realizing that it's part of the Rock Island Arsenal facility, I missed it the first time, drove across the bridge to Iowa before coming back to see the sign pointing right to the military checkpoint.  The nice gentleman at the gate checked my id and pointed me to a small building just around the corner from the checkpoint (as well as pointing out that it's about the only place I'm allowed to visit on the base).  Link for the Mississippi River Visitor Center.


Eagle perched on ice flow near the Mississippi River Visitor Center

(over 500mm full-frame equivalent + additional cropping and still not quite enough lens; I was too lazy to haul the bigger lens & tripod out on to the bridge, and the bridge was constantly wiggling from the cars driving on it)

2:30PM: A nice young lady at the Mississippi River Visitor Center offered me a view through their scope at the only eagle in sight from their office and informed me about various viewing options, including a relatively new park that was not on my map (or theirs).   Although I had driven by the entrance 2 times in my scouting, the snow banks on the highway and the piles of snow at the entrance made the park virtually invisible if you didn't know what to look for.  Fortunately, one of the women working at the visitor center knew that the entrance was at 18th street, so off I went ... to Schwiebert Riverfront Park.  I needed a running start to get past the piled up snow in the entrance and after sliding around a little on the icy parking lot, I finally got to the shore of the river.  This spot had a decent view towards the lock and the area of trees on which some eagles were perched - alas they were a bit distant (I'd estimate 500-1000').  But at least there was somewhere to hang out and something to photograph :-)



Bundled up and ready for action with Lock #15 in the distance

Yeah, I think my left eye automatically closes when I'm holding a camera up :-)


The first afternoon was exciting, but challenging - besides the cold, all the activity was distant.  A lot of those "spec in the frame" kind of opportunities.

Fishing eagle

Eagle 'fly by'


5PM: Chilled to the bone, fingers and toes numb, and disappointed with the opportunities, I considered skipping out and heading home.  However, the forecast was for southwest winds again the next day (which also meant it would be a little warmer), so I opted to spend the night and give it one more try.


I spent the next morning trying to find some good subjects in nice light  - off to Credit Island, Sunset Park (to get better light angle on the few eagles perched on Credit Island), back to the Schwiebert Riverfront Park and walking along the snow covered river path to try to get a better sun angle on the perched eagles by Lock 15. 


I only had a little bit of success and had to retreat to the hotel after a couple of hours to warm up and check-out.

A slightly closer fly-by with Davenport in the background


These guys were willing to come much closer - I wonder if I can Photoshop a white head onto them :-)


The afternoon was pretty much the same as the previous day: a little warmer, but still cold with the stiff wind, and most activity occurring off in the distance.  


That is until about 4PM...



With just over 1 hour to go before sunset, I was starting to think about calling it a day.  Boy, am I glad I didn't.


(Clicking on a thumbnail image below will bring up a larger version of it.)


A disagreement (that or a variation on the courting ritual?)

Pair fly-by with the Lock #15 bridge in the background


A morsel / snack - it was interesting to watch how the eagles snatch the fish (or fish part) from the water, and then immediately put it into their beaks and eat it.

Another disagreement (?) - this time much closer.  In fact, they were too close  - I couldn't keep both in the frame for most of the shots!

(the image at the top of this page is one of several where one or the other bird was omitted or significantly cut :-))

Funny how after 6+ hours hanging out in the cold wishing they were closer, I got what I asked for completely unexpectedly and, of course, having been lulled into putting away the 2nd camera that usually hangs off my shoulder with a shorter zoom lens!  Sheesh!  Lesson learned.

A couple of nicely lit and nearby soarers

(about 10 minutes apart - you can already see the light turning 'buttery' in the 2nd shot)




This was one bizarre fishing bird...he must have really wanted that fish; I didn't realize they were willing to get so wet.

 (Common Goldeneye and Common Merganser in the background)


With about 15 minutes left before sunset, the light was getting very sweet.  Almost as if on cue, along came a fishing eagle facing more or less in our direction!

Thank you southwest winds!


 Coming in for the snatch...

...Intensely focused...



...and coming up with some portion of a fish.

(Interestingly, he ended up dropping it, but then dipped down to pick it back up - next image below)


 Picking up the dropped morsel - and looking straight at us! 

Climbing out...

..."positive rate - gear up" :-)

And don't you think he looks a little like "Gonzo" from the Muppets?  :-)


Yep, it was finally time to call it a day!   Hope to be back again soon.



Some other wildlife that I couldn't resist while I was chasing eagles

Great Blue Heron

Common Merganser


I guess I got kind of lucky with how it all turned out.  While the eagles were still hundreds of feet away (based on camera data from the photos), the activity and the lighting worked out and I was able to create some 'keeper' images.


For anyone that is interested in visiting Schwiebert Riverfront Park and viewing the wintering eagles at Lock and Dam #15, below is a map of the area.  Note that entry to the parking lot is at 18th St & Highway 92 (1st Ave).  And a big thank you to the folks at the Mississippi River Visitor Center for bringing it to my attention.


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