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THROWBACK THURSDAY: Soaring Eagle Populations

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This is a story from the WQAD News 8 archives from May 2006 by reporter Matt Hammill.

THOMSON, Illinois –  Wildlife biologist Ed Britton is going full bore to see one of the most exciting times of year out here on the Upper Mississippi River.

Spring on the refuge brings everything to life with giant white pelicans filling the skies, nesting white egrets filling the trees, and nature's version of high-rise apartments in one of the largest cormorant rookeries on the entire river.

"They're up there loafing, sunning themselves, telling jokes, talking about  where they're gonna go fishing at," jokes Britton, manager of the Savanna District of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

But  on this day, Ed's actually  looking for something  even bigger.

It's an eagle flying overhead.

"She's letting us know you're too close.  Get away from my baby."

Straight ahead, on an island in the middle of the Mississippi, a huge eagle nest tops a dying  tree.

And if you look very closely, sneaking a peak just over the edge, it appears somebody's home.

"There's a head," he says.

"I see one head sticking out of the back, one baby.  He's probably peaking to see if we're looking at him."

For another month the adults will spend every waking hour either guarding this nest or fishing and bringing back food for the hungry bald eagle chick inside.

By July he'll grow strong  enough to follow his mom for his first flight.

"They're primarily fish eaters," he says.

"We do see them feeding upland.  We've seen them feeding on dead deer.  We've seen some eagles check out road kills."

Learn more about eagles here.

It's a far different sight than just a short time ago on this national wildlife refuge that stretches all they way from the Twin Cities to the Quad Cities.

"It's a tremendous success story."

Britton said in 1971, there was only one bald eagle nest on the refuge.

Last year (in 2005) there were 146.

[And in 2015, the Savanna Fish and Wildlife office says it counted 427 nests on the refuge.  Though spotters don't know if each nest is occupied, they say it's safe to bet at least 300 of them have eagles living there for at least part of the year.]

"That's a true success story," he told Matt Hammill in 2006.

Amid a gaggle of noisy neighbors, all raising their families, and frequent  barges and  fishing boats, with loads of curious on-lookers, the eagles take it all in stride and continue to soar away from the brink of extinction.

For biologists like Ed Britton it's payback for all the years of monitoring and protection .

"With deer, with turkey, with eagles, whooping cranes, sandhill cranes, so many species we're seeing come back now," he says with pride.

"It's beautiful.  This makes all those long days in the office worth it," he says.