Story and photos by Greg Peck

A January trip to Janesville’s Hedberg Public Library to check out books on East Coast vacationing evolved into a miniature venture right here at home.

The library is downtown on the Rock River, and I parked within view of floating ice chunks. I walked over for a closer look, only to startle a flock of ducks, which scattered upstream and downstream.

What kind were they? I didn’t recall seeing this species before. Were they always feeding on the river in winter and had I just been too busy to notice them before I retired after three decades as an editor for The Janesville Gazette? Perhaps a recent change encouraged this flock to feed here: The city had removed one of two Janesville dams months earlier, creating current that helped delay winter freeze-up and freeing forage to move upriver from as far south as Beloit.

I wished I’d brought my new camera. I’d used the little Sony 30x’s powerful zoom to get nice shots of cedar waxwings feeding on a berry tree just a week earlier. I raced home to get the camera and returned, but the skittish ducks again flew or dove before I could focus.

This cedar waxwing was part of a flock that descended on a berry tree along East Milwaukee Street in Janesville in early January.

Trying two days later proved futile because the water was warmer than the air and emitted steam that obscured the nervous flock. Leaving my gloves in the still-running car so I could control the camera triggered near frostbite within minutes. I retreated after getting misty photos that at least helped identify the birds as common goldeneyes.

The polar vortex was strengthening, and even colder air was forecast. Concerned my window of opportunity was growing short and that ice would soon force the ducks to fly south, I decided to try a third day.

I snuck up behind growing piles of snow, but again the ducks were skittish. I drove nearby to the former Marshall Middle School, which now houses the Marshall Apartments and Janesville Performing Arts Center. Here a bigger wall of snow afforded me more cover. I’d brought my Canon Rebel with a 300 zoom lens because I could more quickly locate and focus on the ducks. I snapped a few good photos, including some of goldeneyes and mallards, before the flash of a bigger bird crossed my field of vision. I realized it was a bald eagle before I could even dial it in.

Three male common goldeneyes flank a female on the Rock River. 

A common goldeneye heads upstream on the Rock River in downtown Janesville.

 Two drake mallards and a female ply the Rock River.

The impressive predator swooped and snatched a fish. I snapped several photos as it climbed, circled and joined two more eagles high in a large tree 100 yards downstream. I zoomed in and got all three together but was too distant for a good picture.

A bald eagle flies away after plucking a fish from the Rock River in downtown Janesville.

Risking that they might leave, I made the three-minute drive home to get the Sony and invite my wife, Cheryl, to join the sightseeing adventure. As I pulled into a parking lot near the tree, I could see that the eagle with the fish had joined two juveniles with mottled brown plumage. A bald eagle is several years old before attaining its distinctive white head and tail.          

Cheryl watched from the car as I slipped out and one of the juveniles flew off. I tried to be stealthy as I struggled through a foot of snow while clad only in hiking boots. I slipped between two business buildings to a spot almost under the tree’s canopy. I used the Sony to zoom in, and the hungry adult cooperated, dining as I snapped a handful of photos before it flew.

The eagle sits in a nearby tree and enjoys its fish lunch.
The eagle sits in a nearby tree and enjoys its fish lunch.

I couldn’t wait to get home to download the photos and check for quality and sharp focus. But since we were out, I wanted to try finding a red-tailed hawk. I’d spotted them on two thoroughfares on the outskirts of town. This time, luck wasn’t on our side. I doubled back toward home on a wooded, little-used road. That’s when we spotted turkeys in a clearing. I stopped, stepped out and tried to sneak closer. The deep snow and wary flock made that difficult. I snapped several decent photos before they waddled away.

Two turkeys browse the snow-covered landscape in Janesville.

A wary turkey strolls the snowpack in Janesville.

A delightful day it had been. Eagles have been reported in Janesville for years. They’ve made a remarkable comeback and expanded their range since the mosquito pesticide DDT was banned in 1972 and the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973. Last year, aerial Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources surveys found a record 1,695 occupied nests, up from just 108 in the 1970s. I’ve photographed eagles up north, along the Wisconsin River and during annual Canada fishing trips. This was the first time I’d had a chance to photograph them in Janesville, and never before had I gotten this close to one for this long.

Capturing these quality images warmed my heart despite that day’s chill.

Date Posted | February 12, 2019