Today, hundreds of bald eagles call Iowa’s river banks home. But it wasn’t so long ago that America’s national bird couldn’t be seen anywhere in the state.
Iowa photographer Ty Smedes’ 2011 book, “The Return of Iowa’s Bald Eagles,” documents the raptor’s comeback from the brink of extinction.
“Everybody loves bald eagles,” Smedes said. “It has got to be our favorite raptor, if not our favorite bird. I’ve just always been mesmerized by them.”
With the recent release of his book’s second edition, Smedes is touring the state, giving presentations on eagles. Both his book and his presentations include his bald eagle photography, along with anecdotes and facts and figures provided by scientists and conservationists instrumental in the eagles’ recovery.
In 1977, Iowa recorded the first bald eagle nest in 72 years, Smedes said. In contrast, in 2010, 253 eagle hatchlings were recorded. Eagles have now been recorded in 92 of the state’s 99 counties.
He said today Iowa has a resident bald eagle population of about 500, but in the winter, those numbers swell to an average of 3,500 eagles. Birds fly south from Canada, Wisconsin and Minnesota in search of unfrozen open water to hunt fish. This year, with the extreme cold, the number of eagles in the state may be as great as 5,000.
“It’s a great year to go see bald eagles, especially on the Mississippi,” Smedes said. “We have as terrific bald eagle watching in Iowa as anywhere in the country.”
The Urbandale photographer spent plenty of time taking advantage of Iowa’s eagle watching to get the shots for his book. Those efforts included 82 hours spread over 21 mornings photographing one nest in the spring of 2010. Hidden in a photography blind, he watched the nestlings grow up and learn to fly.
“It’s a beautiful, charismatic bird,” Smedes said. “Every American just about drives off the road if they see one at close range."
Bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in 2007. Despite the eagles’ monumental recovery, Smedes said the raptors aren’t in the clear yet. Though the use of the pesticide DDT that almost wiped them out is now curtailed, other threats like habitat destruction still persist. Poisoning from scavenging animals that have been shot with lead pellets is also a problem.
“The population could crash so quickly,” he said. “They have really come up in numbers, but they’re no where near the historical levels.”
He hopes with enough awareness, Iowans can help keep the bald eagle population growing.
If you go:
Smedes has several upcoming presentations on Iowa’s returning bald eagles. See his website for a full schedule.