By Ray Silva
If the opportunity to photograph wild bald eagles is high on your bucket list, then the Upper Mississippi River may be your holy grail.
Every year, eagles from Canada, Minnesota and Wisconsin migrate south in the early winter to find open water for feeding. Because most of the northern Mississippi River (and other waters) freeze over during this season, those options can be limited. But the turbulence below the big Mississippi River dams provides open water where eagles can feed upon stunned fish throughout the cold winter months.
These open-water hotspots are a major magnet for eagles. In fact, up to 2,500 eagles spend their winters along the locks and dams on the upper Mississippi River between Iowa and Illinois. The wooded bluffs that overlook the Mississippi also provide excellent habitat for eagles to nest and roost.
The eagle population varies from week to week, depending upon the weather. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers performs “Eagle Counts” weekly during the winter months to tally the populations at the various locks and dams on the river. Although eagles frequent several locations along the river, the Quad Cities area (Davenport & Bettendorf, Iowa, and Rock Island & Moline, Illinois) is a primary winter vacation spot for bald eagles. The high count for 2022 at Lock and Dam #18 was over 1,100 birds, including adults and juveniles. (You can find last winter’s eagle counts here: https://www.mvr.usace.army.mil/Missions/Recreation/Mississippi-River-Project/Education/Eagle-Watching/Eagle-Counts/.
But eagles aren’t the only visitors you’ll find feeding here. It is not unusual to see a variety of ducks, geese, swans and even American White Pelicans. All of them can be photographed flying, perching and feeding along the river, often with striking winter landscapes in the background.
I’ve visited these winter spots multiple times, and often encounter photographers from across the Midwest and the South. You can make a road trip from Georgia to see this incredible display of eagles on your own, or if you like, you can attend a GNPA field trip that I’ll be hosting Feb. 16-19. (While the eagles are present most of the winter, my favorite time is the late winter months when the weather conditions tend to be considerably milder than January).
For our field trip, we should be ready to start shooting on Friday morning Feb. 17, and return to the Quad City airport after a final morning shoot ending at noon on Feb. 19. All told, we’ll be visiting at least two locations (possibly a third), traveling up to 90 minutes away to the prime locations.
There is no fee for GNPA members to join our field trip, but you will need to cover your own lodging and meals. The deadline for registering is Jan. 19. You can find more info here: https://www.meetup.com/gwinnett-gnpa-chapter/events/288391894/
If you’ve always wanted a chance to photograph lots of bald eagles in action, this is a remarkable opportunity. Whether it’s this year or another time, be sure to add these dams to your photographic wish list.
Ray Silva was originally a member of GNPA’s Coastal Chapter before moving to Illinois to be closer to family. He still attends the Expo and Smokies events, and is a current GNPA board member.