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Snow, cold brings bald eagles soaring over the Mississippi River

Every Wednesday in the winter, park rangers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers count the bald eagles. On Jan. 25, they spotted 22 at Lock and Dam No. 15.

ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. — The snow and colder weather brought more bald eagles out to Lock and Dam 15 than have been spotted in the past two weeks.

Every Wednesday morning in December, January and February, park rangers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers count the number of bald eagles at locks and dams along the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. 

Mike McKean usually does the job at Lock and Dam 15 on the Rock Island Arsenal. On Wednesday, Jan. 25, he counted 22 eagles — 15 adults and seven juveniles.

"I usually start with the trees, kind of scan this way and then I'll go back and catch anything that's flying," McKean said. "You're starting to scan this way and all of a sudden there's two or three flying, it's like, oh geez, did I just count you guys? So you do your best that you can to try to get as accurate, but they're gonna move around a little bit."

Last week, he only counted three, and the week before, there were 15. 

"Twenty-two's an OK number," McKean said. "Last week we were pretty warm, not much snow."

The most he's counted so far this winter was 139 on Dec. 28 right after a cold snap when the Mississippi River was frozen over. Bald eagles like to come to the locks and dams when the river is frozen because the water around them gets stirred up and doesn't freeze as easily. That same week, 810 eagles were spotted at Lock and Dam 18 in Gladstone.

"A lot of it was starting to break up, so there was more open patches of water, so it seemed like they were kind of flocking to that open water a little more," he said.

However, fewer eagles in the same place means that there's less competition between them for food, so McKean said lower numbers isn't necessarily a bad thing for them.

Since Dec. 7, there have been 234 bald eagles spotted so far. That includes 146 adults and 88 juveniles.

That's slightly up from last year when rangers had seen 207 at Lock and Dam 15 up until Jan. 26. For the 2021-22 season, they spotted a total of 294. However, back in 2017-18, the most recent data on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' website, rangers had counted 386 to this point.

As part of the counting, McKean and other rangers track other data, such as what the eagles were doing, if there were seagulls, geese or people around, if there's construction happening nearby and ice on the water.

All of the data gets used to help track different trends.

"For me, it's kind of a fun part of the day," McKean said. "We're doing some counting, so I'm working too, but it's fun work that's for sure."

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