Bettendorf Stories and Tips

Eagle Viewing Along the Mississippi River

A Majestic Bald Eagle Photo, Bettendorf, Iowa

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.

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