Road Trip Goes Beyond Where Eagles Dare

With a short lens and a long back road, the author goes hunting for eagles and returns with a different sort of treasure.


Nidhin Poothully

This is the type of lens many people think of when you say "nature photographer." Unfortunately, most of us don't have $12,000 to spend on this 600mm lens.

Sometime during the winter—most likely January or February— our thoughts turn to eagle watching in the part of Illinois between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

Why? Because the eagles are landing. Their seasonal jaunt brings them here to congregate along waterways where there is open water with an ample fish supply. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, about 5,000 birds winter in the state every year.

To see an eagle in flight or perching in a tree along a riverbank comes about as close to a naturalist’s ecstatic center as you can get. It is all the more pleasurable when you remember that the eagle was verging on extinction a generation or so ago. The embarrassment of losing the living version of the nation’s emblem forced Congress to pass the Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940 with amendments in 1959, 1962, 1972, and 1978. The main threat to the glorious birds’ future was eliminated when DDT was banned in 1972.

During the winter of 2014, with record cold and snow, you had to be pretty hardy and unusually dedicated to go out seeking eagles. Not for me. But this past January, we had a thaw with bright days in the 40s and mild breezes. With a long weekend, I have a ready-set-go kind of day. I stop at our local family restaurant for an omelet (chicken eggs) and head out with high expectations, fairly new camera and telephoto lens and old binoculars for an adventure.

My plan has me heading cross-country to near Oquawka, Illinois, just upriver from Lock and Dam Number 18, a good place with open water. Then, I will go north to cross the Mississippi at Muscatine, Iowa, drive back down the Mississippi to Burlington, Iowa, and head back home to Illinois by early evening.

It is going to be a good day. That is, it is going to be a good day until I am just outside of Biggsville, Illinois, about 10 miles shy of my first planned stop. The low-air-pressure light on my dash flashes. Disbelief. Can’t be. The car was just serviced a few days ago.

Silas, my 1928 Model A Ford Sports Coupe, is sitting in the garage at home, waiting for me to finish disassembling the engine for an overhaul.

I am well pleased with the back-road surprises. And, I am pushing my luck driving out yonder on a baby spare. It’s warm enough to work in the garage, so why not make the day better than it has already turned out?

Turns out to be a pretty good plan, one that builds for the future. When I get Silas up and running again this summer, I will be travelling with two real spares. And a good jack. That, my friends, with the luck I’ve been having, is security.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.