Bob Schifo saw his first bald eagle just after he graduated from high school in 1968, when he was on a fishing trip with an uncle in northern Minnesota.
"I was just thrilled to death then, and every time I see one now I'm still thrilled," he said. "They're magnificent creatures."
In the early '60s, eagles were on the endangered species list, with only 487 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states, according to the Audubon Society. Now, due to conservation efforts, bald eagles have made a major comeback — 11,000 nesting pairs were counted in 2007 in the lower 48.
"More and more people are seeing them," said Beth Chato, a longtime member of the Champaign County Audubon Society.
"I have a report of one flying over Urbana last week. They've been nesting at the Middle Fork Forest Preserve north of Champaign for three years, producing about two or three young a year."
An eagle nest also has been spotted near Homer Lake. And the big birds have been seen at Lake of the Woods in Mahomet, according to Chato.
Schifo, a studio photographer who lives in Catlin, 30 miles east of Urbana, sees the U.S. avian symbol often — and not necessarily along a river or other body of water.
"Half the time when I'm driving to Danville I see one flying over the road," he said. "One time I went to the post office and saw one cruising around.
"You have to know what to look for. I can tell from a long way off whether it's an eagle."
Schifo said the year before last basically every river in Vermilion County had an eagle's nest along it.
"You never used to see them around here," he added.
Mike Ward, an ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, agreed, saying most eagle sightings used to be limited to along the Mississippi River.
In the '80s, there were fewer than 20 eagle nests in Illinois; a statewide bird count last spring estimated 200 nests and 400 eagles.
"They're really making an impressive comeback," Ward said.
Schifo's favorite place to photograph eagles is Heron County Park, just north of Danville on the north end of Lake Vermilion. (Bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in 2007, but remain protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and other federal laws.)
The Heron County Park along Newell Road has a boardwalk and observation tower. At that park, eagles like to perch in a large sycamore tree, Schifo said.
"In past years, more than half the time I went out there for an hour or so I'd see an eagle fly over," he said.
He's also seen them sitting in trees southeast of Westville near Forest Glen Preserve, which includes in its landscape the Vermilion River.
Eagles like being around water because they like fish.
"They're not particularly aggressive — they're more apt to go after dead fish" and other carrion, Chato said.
And in warmer weather, as we have had this winter, the eagles tend to spread out rather than flock together near the churning waters of locks and dams, when rivers are frozen.
Like many eagle admirers, Schifo — and hundreds of other photographers — used to travel to the locks and dams along the Mississippi to look for eagles.
"At the time when eagles are there in huge numbers, some guys go to fish markets and buy dead fish and rig up giant slingshots and shoot the fish out into the river," Schifo said. "The eagles come out and grab these dead fish.
"Then you take pictures of them."
Many Illinois and Iowa communities along the Mississippi River offer eagle watching and related events this and next month:
Starved Rock State Park, Utica. Bald Eagle Trolley Tours, Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, January and February. On Mondays and Wednesdays, the tour begins with lunch at 11 a.m. in the lodge dining room. Adults, $25; children 10 and younger, $20. Saturdays, the first tour is at 9 a.m. and ends with lunch and the second tour, 11 a.m. and ending with lunch. Sundays, the tour begins at 10:30 a.m. with brunch. Adults, $32; children 10 and younger, $27. The tours include transportation, a guide, an eagle presentation at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center. 815-220-7386.
Bald Eagle Days, 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, QCCA Expo Center, Rock Island. It's billed as the largest Midwest event dedicated to the bald eagle. $6 for adults; $1, kids.
The event features live-eagle programs and live-bird-of-prey demonstrations; Pella Wildlife Company showing wolves; Niabi Zoo showing exotic animals; and more than 100 display booths. The Quad City Audubon Society will have eagle-spotting scopes at Sunset Marina in Rock Island and provide free shuttle bus service from the Expo Center. qccaexpocenter.com.
Clinton/Fulton Bald Eagle Watch, 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Lock and Dam 13, Fulton, Iowa, with indoor exhibitions from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Clinton Community College, 1000 Lincoln Boulevard, Clinton, Iowa. Free bus service from the college to the Lock and Dam. 815-259-3628 or clintoniowatourism.com or cityoffulton.us.
Annual Keokuk Bald Eagle Days, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Jan. 16 and 17, with free indoor programs and an Environmental Fair at River City Mall, 300 Main St., Keokuk, Iowa, featuring live eagle programs, Native American activities, woodcarvers' exhibits and demonstrations, World Bird Sanctuary Presentations, seminars, children's pioneer activities, and an Artifact Road Show. Eagle-spotting scopes, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, at the riverfront. keokukiowatourism.org.
Dubuque Bald Eagle Watch, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Jan. 16, Grand River Center, 500 Bell St., Dubuque, Iowa. Educational displays and activities for kids, with outdoor eagle viewing from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Lock and Dam 11. traveldubuque.com.
Quincy Bald Eagle Watch, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 23-24, with indoor exhibits and activities, Oakley Lindsay Civic Center, 300 Civic Center Plaza, Quincy. (217) 228-0890 or seequincy.com.
Eagle Watch, 10 a.m. to noon Jan. 23, Welcome Center at Port of Burlington, 400 N. Front St., Burlington, Iowa. People also may help count eagles at Lock and Dam 18. 319-753-5808 or greaterburlington.com.
Eagle watching, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 23, Lock and Dam 16, Muscotine, Iowa, with live eagle programs at 9:30 and 11 a.m. and environmental exhibits at Pearl City Station in Riverside Park, 1100 Harbor Drive, Muscatine. 563-263-7913 or visitmuscatine.com.
Muscatine County Arts Council Eagles and Ivories Concert Series, featuring ragtime music, Jan. 29-31. Evening concert tickets: $15 each and available at the door; three-day concert package, $40. Children 16 and younger admitted free. muscatineartscouncil.org.
Bald Eagle Bus Tours, Feb. 13 and 27. Four-hour bus tour stops at multiple sites to show bald eagles feeding, roosting and/or nesting. Reservations required; adults are $70; youths younger than 17 $50. Each tour departs at 8 a.m. from Stoney Creek Inn, 940 Galena Square Drive, Galena. 815-594-2306 or eaglenature.com or galena.org.