The big bird has rebounded along the Mississippi, astonishing admirers with its robust beauty and power and profusion
KEOKUK - This is Alaska south, where no eagle eyes are needed to see eagles. In the first moments of pulling into a parking lot at Victory Park, a juvenile eagle rose from the Mississippi River with a fish in its talons, cut through the blowing snow, and zoomed straight toward me to perch on a tree to begin eating lunch.
I have seen eagles on rooftops in Alaska, paddled beneath them in New Hampshire, Maine, and Oregon, and had them soar overhead while I cycled in Minnesota. I have watched them fly low over alligators in the Everglades and high over our drinking water in the Quabbin Reservoir. But never had I experienced an eagle come directly toward me and plop down on a branch only about 50 feet away, as if to say, “Excuse me, this is my table.’’
The skies were grim, the snow was building around my tires, and a cold, stiff wind flooded the car as I tried to take some images, shaking as much from the jaw-dropping moment as from the elements. The “teenager,’’ whose mottled head was just beginning to take on the full white of a mature eagle, alternately munched and stared back at me.
That was on my first visit, in December 2007. I came back a month later. Then the skies were clear blue. It had been a mesmerizing day of seeing eagles perched in Keokuk and afterward crossing the river into Illinois and driving south several miles to Warsaw. In that little town on the bluffs, not only are eagles perched, but also you have a National Geographic-level perspective of the birds soaring below you over cakes of ice.
From Warsaw, I returned to Victory Park, looking for more eagles. Through a tree, I saw a silhouette rising from the river. The bird crested the tree and flew right over my head, gripping a meaty gizzard shad in its talons. The size and weight of the fish was clearly a bit much for even this big bird. It flew low in laboriously slow motion, until it hauled its catch over to a tree a football field away. Again, my jaw dropped, and with teeth still chattering, I thought, ohmigod.
Last January I came back with two buddies. Bill Meyer, a retired photographer for the Milwaukee Journal, and Clayborn Benson, a retired television photographer for Milwaukee’s NBC affiliate, were my photojournalism mentors when I was in college. While photography stayed a hobby for me, they became award-winning professionals. I wasn’t sure how impressed they would be after driving nearly six hours to where the Mississippi marries Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri.
Once they got to the Victory Park parking lot, though, they had that kids-in-a-candy-store look. We moved slightly downriver to a boat landing. An eagle landed on a tree. It was late afternoon on a cloudless day. I noticed that the full moon had risen. Then I spied a small plot of land rising from the landing, across from the eagle, the tree, and the moon. With my heart racing, I started thinking that if I got to that landing, the moon might appear behind the eagle.
I waved to my friends to hurry to the landing. And, voila! We almost fainted at the sight: an outrageously cooperative eagle and the moon just behind it. We fired away before the moon rose too high. Then the eagle took off, with the afternoon light bronzing its sweeping wings and the moon glowing over its head.
This amazing sight occurred in Keokuk, a small town of 10,000 people. Mark Twain lived here briefly in the mid-1850s. He came to work for his brother, but he did not stay long. Twain biographer Ron Powers described Keokuk as “a hotbed of rest . . . a more insular cocoon could hardly be found.’’ Twain left because “the genteel torpor of Keokuk was too much to bear any longer.’’
A century and a half later, eagles have turned the torpor into a hotbed of activity. Keokuk is one of the Mississippi River towns with a massive dam. Eagles forced off frozen lakes and streams in the northernmost United States and Canada congregate here to fish near the cascading, churning open water (which also stuns the fish for particularly easy picking).
A half century ago, there was not much to see. Because of loss of habitat, hunting, and later, pesticides, the number of bald eagles in the United States had declined by 1963 to 417 pairs in the contiguous 48 states. There were no documented bald eagle nests in Iowa from 1906 to 1977.
In the early 1980s, only 60 to 80 bald eagles wintered in Keokuk. That was enough for the town to launch a weekend winter festival 25 years ago called Bald Eagle Appreciation Days. Organizers were so nervous that people might not see eagles that they made two wooden cutouts of the bird and placed them in trees on the Illinois side of the river.
After the banning of DDT and three decades of federal protection, eagle watchers in January counted 450 eagles along Keokuk’s six miles of shoreline. The colder the winter, the larger the congregation. The town had a record 732 eagles in 2001. It is part of a continental recovery that has seen the number of wintering eagles grow from 1,500 eagles in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri in the mid-1980s to over 4,000 eagles in Iowa alone. Iowa now has more than 200 pairs of nesting eagles, according to Tom Buckley, director of the Lee County Conservation Board.
“There is one tree at the end of Morgan Street that, if you get up early enough in the morning, you’ll almost always find 15 to 18 eagles roosting,’’ Buckley said of a street that ends on a high bluff overlooking Lock and Dam 19. “Some people may take it for granted, but most of the people in town that know about it will go to it from time to time. To see them in those numbers up close, it is awe-inspiring. To have them in a tree just above my head, it still turns my head every time.’’
Kirk Brandenberger, 54, executive director for tourism in Keokuk, grew up seven miles from town but never saw an eagle as a child. It was not until the mid 1990s, after moving back to the area, that he saw one. Today, living in the same house he grew up in, he sees them frequently. “One day I caught a couple playing or fighting in midair,’’ he said. “They were flying upside down, right side up. It was amazing.’’
Brandenberger can boast that the Endangered Species Act is good not just for wildlife but for the economy. Keokuk is now one of many river towns that host versions of Bald Eagle Appreciation Days, each packed with a weekend of outdoor viewing and indoor interpretive programs. Keokuk’s attracted 7,000 to 8,000 people in January.
The festival, plus the stream of bird-watchers and photographers from the 2008 December freeze to ice melt in March probably was worth 60 percent of the $12 million in economic activity in Keokuk for that period, Brandenberger said. “This office and all of the tourism offices up and down the river that have eagles are busy in the winter while others are trying to figure out what to do next summer,’’ he said.
Visitors do not have to figure out what to do. You can see eagles perch and fly over your head almost anywhere along a mile strip starting from Victory Park. You can look down on the birds and have sweeping views of the Mississippi from the bluffs of Warsaw or Morgan Street. You can see them frolicking on the ice along a shoreline road that heads north out of town.
An All-American sight that came perilously close to belonging only to Alaska, of eagle after eagle roosting in trees, now belongs to millions within a day’s drive all over the Midwest. There is still genteel torpor in Keokuk, all right. It is of bird-watchers, frozen in a dream come true. A more insular place for the bald eagle can hardly be found.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.