Sometimes you meet people and make an immediate connection. I was fortunate to have new friends Russ & Jan come into my life last summer. A professional photographer, Russ invited me along to photograph eagles in Iowa.
by MilwVon on January 19, 2013
The purpose of this trip was to observe and hopefully photograph eagles in the wild along the Mississippi River near the Quad Cities area of Illinois & Iowa. The four cities that make up this regional area are Rock Island and Moline, Illinois and Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa. Bettendorf would serve as our home base during our time in the area because the Mississippi River Lock & Dam #14 is located there.Generally speaking, in the winter the eagle viewing along the river is best once there is a substantial freeze of the river and its tributaries. About three weeks before our trip, the river had significantly more ice and therefore, the eagles had a smaller territory for fishing. Unfortunately, the week before our trip there had been a warming trend with very little ice to be seen this far south. Interestingly enough, the next day on our drive home to Wisconsin, we followed the river north and at lock #12 the river was largely frozen over at the mouth of the lock. With the water flowing freely before the dam, many more eagles were seen fishing and eating along the river.For our trip, we left Milwaukee around 9:30am which had us arriving to our viewing location around 2:00pm. It was chilly but not what I would consider downright cold. I did not wear my thermals nor my boots and I stayed warm with just a parka and my gloves. It was overcast and rather gloomy, but Russ assured me that would be better for the photos given that the bright sun can really cause issues. With my slower 70-300 f/4.0-5.6 lens, however, I needed more light for the lens to function smoother in auto focus mode. The next morning, shooting due east, I could see what he was talking about as when the sun broke through the clouds, I was shooting directly into it. It was a PITA!When we parked in the public recreation area, there were around 20 other cars there. Most of the people were mulling around, just watching and taking snapshots of the birds. There were, however, several SERIOUS photographers (like Russ), with huge 500mm f/1.2 lens that could snap off many shots per second. I was having a serious case of lens envy.We watched several eagles in the trees surrounding the parking lot. While many enjoyed the large mature bald eagle right in front of where we had parked, I was more taken with a mature adult sharing a branch with what appeared to be a first year juvenile. Ordinarily, only a parent will share a branch with their own offspring, so one could surmise this was a parent with one of its fledglings from this past summer.Bald eagles are so beautiful and graceful as they fly and fish. On Saturday afternoon, there wasn't a lot of activity at the river. Sunday morning, however, there were more eagles and much more fishing for food taking place. I was fortunate that in spite of the challenging light, I was able to capture several nice photographs of the eagles, including one catching a fish and flying to the trees to eat it.I should also mention that Sunday was much colder (at least 20F colder) than it was the prior afternoon. I was layered to include my thermal underwear. At times, when the wind kicked up, it was bone chilling. Additionally, we had some snow over night which created the additional ground hazard of ice.It was really a wonderful time watching the eagles. I hope that I'll be able to return to the area again, if not later this winter, next year.
Back when gambling was first made legal in Iowa, riverboat casinos popped up all along the Mississippi River. I remember my first "boat trip" to Dubuque in the early 1990's while on a bowling trip to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A group of us drove over to the river to sample the casino. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the boat actually left the shore and you were stuck aboard even after you lost the money you had to play with. Further, there were gambling limits that restricted the amount of money a person could lose during their evening of play. I think it was like $250 or something like that. Today, I cannot imagine walking into a casino without at least the $500 necessary to hopefully wait out a bad trend of cards.I really did enjoy the Isle of Capri Casino which is still aboard a river boat, but today is it anchored to the dock and doesn't travel the river. It is a 24/7 operation, allowing folks to come and go as they please. Being housed in a three deck boat makes for a lot of very nice features . . . most importantly to me, a warm and friendly environment. There is nothing worse than spending an evening gambling and leaving feeling like you were not only not entertained, but that the people there were not very nice. Here at Isle of Capri, it was a very pleasant and homey environment.The NFL playoffs were that weekend, so the employees were largely in football attire. Lots of Iowa State Cyclone and Iowa Hawkeyes' jerseys, as well as some Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears. Imagine being a Green Bay Packers' fan among these fans! All in all, it was a friendly night of cards.As I said, the casino has three decks. When you crossover on the sky walk, you enter on the second deck which is also the main casino floor. Here there are hundreds of slot machines and around 20 - 25 table games. They feature black jack, three card poker (YES!), roulette, pai gow poker and craps. They also had a couple of games I was unfamiliar with . . . Mississippi stud and black jack +3. For those looking for live poker, including weekly tournaments, they have that too.After supper, we wandered over to the casino. I was hopeful they'd have my game (3 card poker) and when I saw they did, I made a beeline over. Russ & Jan went to find a slot machine to play. I had hopes of playing for no more than a couple hundred bucks, but as I previously commented, I was prepared to ride out a bad wave of cards. I dabbled around even for what seemed like hours, but alas, it was around 90 minutes. I was having a good time but my table mates had to leave for dinner.Left playing alone, which I do not enjoy, I stayed because frankly the dealers were nice and the pace of the game slow enough that I didn't feel like I was losing hands too quickly. About that time, Russ and Jan found me. They had never seen the game so I taught them. They joined me at the table, but unfortunately lost rather quickly. Jan rode out her bad cards to get back to close to even though . . . so good for her.Just before they found me, and while I was playing alone, I did have a bit of magic strike. I was close to $150 down when I got a three of a kind, which pays out at $150 on a $5 bet. Sweet! Two hands later, another three of a kind . . . and another $150! CHA-CHING . . . and now up $200+ for the night.I stayed and played a bit longer when Russ and Jan joined me. I was happy to walk away after several hours, up $100 even. It was really a fun night. I enjoyed the casino staff and my table mates.Like most small casinos away from Nevada and Atlantic City, NJ . . . there were no free alcoholic beverages, only soft drinks, coffee and water. From what I gathered from others at my table, beer and cocktails were $2 each.
The Isle of Capri Hotel & Casino in Bettendorf is very convenient and affordable for those traveling to the Quad Cities area for business or recreation. There were three of us using this location as our home base for a weekend trip to view and photograph eagles along the Mississippi River in the city of Bettendorf, IA.There are two towers that comprise this hotel. The north tower is the one that has been reportedly updated with new furnishings and upgraded televisions. We had a standard room in the south tower, which was very comfortable and actually more convenient to the casino and dining options. The south tower is also where the hotel check-in registration area is, as well as the valet parking. Therefore, I would say that it would be the preferred location for any future visit I may make to this hotel/casino property.Our room had two queen sized pillow-top beds that were outstanding for a good night's sleep. Admittedly, watching the Packers' NFL playoff game on the smallish television was a bit of a bummer, but we weren't there to watch TV so it wasn't that big a deal.We had free bottled water awaiting us in the room, as well as eco-friendly bath amenities. They also are pet friendly, with some restrictions. (See website for more information.) For those looking for some water relaxation, they do have an indoor swimming pool and complimentary local phone calls and WiFi in all rooms.From our room atop the eighth floor, we had a lovely view of the courtyard below as well as one of the bridges crossing the Mississippi River. Around 10:00pm snow began falling, creating a wonderful winter wonderland. We slept with the curtains open, making it feel like we were sleeping in a snow globe. It was so tranquil and serene.If you have one of their casino players' cards, you can expect to receive special discounts and promotions for rooms as low as $29/night.All in all, our overnight stay at Isle of Capri was very nice. I will stay there again when I return to the area!
During our weekend overnight at the Isle of Capri Hotel & Casino, we had the opportunity to dine at their buffet twice . . . for dinner and breakfast. I think it is a rule that casino hotels have a decent buffet, because most I've been to have all had very nice dining options for their guests. While the days of $2.99 steak & eggs are long gone, you can still find a decent meal with good value at most casinos . . . and Isle of Capri is no exception.For dinner Saturday night, they had a full feature of surf (crab legs & shrimp) and turf (carved beef) along with all of the wonderful accompaniments you'd want. Starting with a small salad with a fluffy dinner roll, I moved right on to a wonderful fried chicken breast, sliced beef and asparagus. There were a lot of other options including some oriental and Italian entrees; baked and mashed potatoes and the previously mentioned shellfish. Admittedly, the crab legs looked a bit scrawny and like they'd be more work than they'd be worth so I took a pass on them.For dessert, they had a huge selection of pies and cakes, as well as soft served ice cream. I thoroughly enjoyed my creme-de-mint cream pie.With unlimited trips to the buffet plus soft drink, the Saturday night dinner buffet is $14.99. If you have a players card, however, they take $5.00 off. That is quite the deal.The next morning we returned to Calypso's Buffet for breakfast. The headliner in the morning was fresh made-to-order omelets with all of the items you'd expect at an omelet bar. I enjoyed my mushroom & ham with cheddar, with hash browns and a side of sausage. I really did not care much for the chicken fried steak strips, as they were rather cold and greasy. No worries, though, as there was plenty of other yummy things to eat.They did have a nice selection of cold cereals, oatmeal, fresh fruits and pastries. I had a biscuit with my breakfast, although they also offered breads, english muffins and bagels. I also saw donuts at the other end of the buffet, appropriately where the desserts had been the night before.The Sunday morning breakfast buffet is $8.99, but seniors over 50 get a buck off. With players points from the night before, I think my breakfast came to around $6.25. Not bad at all.Calypso's Buffet is located on the third floor of the south tower, the same building where the registration desk and sky walk to the casino are. It is a very convenient spot for hotel and casino patrons.A word about the service . . . the hostesses and servers were very attentive and helpful. I must say, there is nothing like nice Midwestern service!
Iowa is one of the ten states that shares the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Approximately 325 of the 3,000 total miles meander through Iowa's river cities, which include Dubuque, Davenport, Muscatine, Clinton, Bellvue and Bettendorf . . . our home base for the weekend.Having done the Great River Road through a significant portion of Wisconsin this past fall, I was very interested to see how the towns compared. I think I liked the ones we passed through in Iowa a little more. They seemed to be more picturesque of what I envision as Mark Twain's Americana.Since we stayed in Bettendorf and took the Great River Road north when heading home to Wisconsin on Sunday, I only got a 100 mile snapshot of Iowa's side of the river. That said, it was really very nice and a trip I'd love to do when I had more time to explore.The first real city we encountered after Bettendorf was Clinton. I had heard lots about "Clinton, Iowa" from someone I knew in soccer. His wife was from Clinton and he always made it sound like she was from little place out in the sticks. Now that I've been to Clinton, I don't know what he had to crow about, being raised in Monroe, Wisconsin. My goodness, Clinton was a rather large "little city" . . . very similar to Monroe.Clinton seems to have a lot to offer visitors looking for a historical perspective on life on the river. There are a couple of museums worth noting; the Clinton Historical Society Museum and the Sawmill Museum. For folks looking for entertainment during the summer months, check out the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre. Staged in a restored paddle wheel boat, enjoy dinner and a show while cruising the Mississippi River.North of Clinton is Bellvue, Iowa which is the location of Mississippi River Lock #12. As we drove through this town, we noticed several eagles seemingly floating in the winds above. Russ just had to stop to take more photos. Me? I was warm and comfy in the truck, not to mention, I did not have enough lens to photograph them so I stayed and chatted with Jan.The road continued to wind north, generally following the river although at one spot, we took a noticeable turn to the left (west) away from the river. In this area were several large rock bluffs, similar again to what I had previously seen along the Minnesota/Wisconsin border up around LaCrosse, WI.It was in this area that we saw a car driven by a young girl, accompanied by two friends, off the road in a rather deep ditch. We had gotten some snow overnight, which had the road icy in spots. It appeared as though they lost control on the shoulder and got sideways around the curve . . . and into the ditch they went. Thankfully, nobody was hurt and the local county sheriff was there with a tow truck to winch them out of the ditch.The last river city we drove through in Iowa was Dubuque. Having driving the Milwaukee to Ames (IA) route many times, I was very familiar with Dubuque. It is home to many attractions including the National Mississippi River Museum, Crystal Lake Cave, Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens and Diamond Jo Casino & Hotel. Additionally, there is one US National Park Service site, the Effigy Mounds National Monument, approximately 65 miles north of Dubuque.If you're going to be traveling in this area, I would encourage you to consider a side trip off the main highways to explore a little of this beautiful farmland that is also rich in history.
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