Along the Mackinaw With An "Eagle Whisperer" | WGLT

Along the Mackinaw With An "Eagle Whisperer"

May 18, 2015

This female eagle was found dead of a gunshot wound in McLean County.
Credit Mary Jo Adams

A gunshot rings out on a farm just outside of Normal. Conservation police soon find a female bald eagle wounded in a field. The bird receives emergency treatment, but cannot rebound. For Mary Jo Adams, an Illinois master naturalist, news of the eagle's death is particularly devastating.

"It just kind of breaks my heart to see the nest empty now when we should be seeing one to three eaglets poking their heads out."

If there is such a thing as an eagle whisperer, it would be Adams. She owns the land in rural Carlock along the Mackinaw River where this eagle and her various broods have nested for years in the same cottonwood tree. Adams has been photographing the birds since they began returning to central Illinois about six years ago.

"The nest here was the first active eagle's nest recorded in central Illinois when they started returning in 2009. The first chick hatched in 2010. There were also some eagles along the Illinois River and we suspect that some of those eagles that hatched along the Illinois ventured into this territory."

Adams set up a spotting scope in one of the windows at her house so she could watch over the birds. When the female eagle gave birth, like a proud parent, Adams photography milestones in the eaglets lives, including their first attempts at flight.

"They get on the edge of the nest and just start flapping their wings, and then as they get a little braver, they will flap their wings and get on some of the other branches in the open, and what happens is they spread out their wings and when they get a good gust of wing, off they go."

The female eagle's chicks were just about to hatch when she was shot. Adams says the mother's male mate tried to care for the eaglets single-handedly.

"The male tried to do his best. We observed the male taking food up to the nest and feeing. We were able to see one eaglet. But that's still a lot of work for a single parent."

Eventually Adams realized there was not one, there were actually two chicks in need of care. And she soon noticed something strange. Another male eagle, not the eaglets' father, would sometimes buzz by the nest.

"I just knew things weren't normal at the nest. There were a lot of vocalizations from the eagle in the nest and there was another eagle here who wasn't allowed to get close to the nest. It was as if this was a stranger to the other eagle, and, of course, that's what it turned out to be."

Then, on another of her daily walks to check on the birds, Adams made another sad discovery.

"Much to my consternation, I found the body of a dead eagle that was on the banks of the Mackinaw River down here, deceased due to what looked like injuries sustained in a fight with probably the other eagle, the strange eagle who had been here."

With the father now dead, it was only a matter of time before the two baby eagles died too, probably of exposure and starvation.

Valente: "It really show the interconnection between these living creatures."

Adams: "Oh yes, the eagle parents over the years had been so good, so devoted, interacting with the young ones, watching the young ones fly out of the nest for the first time."

But now there is some good news. Adams is seeing a new male and female pair circling the same area where the other eagle family used to live.

"They come in the morning and we think they roost nearby, meaning they probably are sleeping in one of the protective valleys and come up and perch on the tops of trees to warm up in the morning. Then they head off probably looking for their meal, either along the river here or at Evergreen Lake. They're ususally back here late afternoon or evening."

Valente: "Let's see if we can find this new eagle."

Adams: "We can walk closer to the perching tree. There he is!"

Valente: "My gosh, that's a beautiful site. They're just gorgeous creatures. They have that white top, white head, and when they spread their wings they are so graceful, like a ballet dancer."

Adams: "They're beautiful when they soar too, when we see them sometimes doing circles right overhead in this open field. It just makes my heart sing to see him still here."

On a previous visit to the nest site, Adams apparently interrupted her new neighbor's dinner.

"He flew off with the fish he was eating. Interestingly enough, he also had a small branch in his talon at the time and as he flew over our field, he dropped the stick and kept the fish. So he wasn't a dumb bird at all. Then he flew off back to the west and I'm assuming he finished up his meal there."

Valente: "What's it like to walk through here and be so intimate, so close to the wild life that's here?"

"It's just wonderful out here. I'm walking these trails every single day, rain or shine. In sleet and snow, I'm out here. I just like to wander. I guess you could say I'm an explorer. I like to see what I can find. Usually I have my camera and my binoculars and I always find something interesting."

Valente: "It's almost as if these creatures become part of your family."

Adams: "The eagles are definitely part of my family. I've documented them with hundreds, maybe thousands of photographs. I created a little album of their first year and that very first hatched eaglet. The young ones who were here come back to visit seemingly every year.

Valente: "I feel almost as if you are grieving the loss of these friends the way you would a human friend."

Adams: "Oh, I am grieving. I had nightmares for about a week and a sense of betrayal that someone would do something like this. I don't understand how someone could fire a gun at a bald eagle and I don't think I ever will. I wish they could find who did this and maybe we could get some answers."

Bald eagles, with their white heads, yellow beaks and wings that span as long as seven feet, are no longer considered endangered. But they are protected under state and federal law. Killing a bald eagle is a felony punishable by a maximum fine of $250,000 and up to two years in prison. Other civil penalties also apply.

"I'm in the hopes that this new pair that are here will use the nest next year. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they've now decided to call this place home. Nobody else is here, so they basically moved in. And that's what they're going to do. That's nature."

Adams says if past experience is any guide, the new set of eagles will stay along the Mackinaw until sometime in September, then fly off to parts unknown, only to return again around February to the same cottonwood tree nest, and rejoin the otters, beavers, red-tailed hawks and other birds and wildlife that live along the Mackinaw.

McLean County Crime Stoppers is offering a $1,000 reward to anyone with information leading to the original female eagle's killer. The eagle nest is on property owned by Parklands Foundation, a non-profit group that restores and protects natural landscapes.

The bald eagle is an American icon, chosen by the founding fathers to be the symbol of the U.S.