Sometimes bundled like Inuits, long-lensed cameras in hand, Chuck Streker and some fellow photographers spent a lot of time outside in last week’s extreme cold, following hunches and assorted leads to their favored photo subjects.
“I know I was out a lot when it was just 5 or 10 degrees,” Streker said.
According to him, a member of what’s jokingly called Wichita’s bald eagle paparazzi, it was worth every shiver and runny nose.
“This week was the best I’ve ever seen,” he said as waited by a potential photo spot Thursday afternoon. “Yesterday I probably saw 20. At one time we had nine in the air above us at once. It was amazing.”
All of those bald eagles, a mixture of vanilla-capped adults and chocolate-capped juveniles, were basically seen within downtown Wichita, along the Arkansas or Little Arkansas rivers.
Wildlife experts aren’t surprised the low temperatures have led to high bald eagle numbers within Wichita.
Most winters, Kansas is home to several thousand bald eagles that have migrated from the northern U.S. and Canada. They’re looking for ice-free waters where they can fish and are following big flocks of ducks and geese, on which they often feast. The state also is home to at least 50 nesting pairs of bald eagles and the young they raise through the spring and summer.
Bob Gress, a nationally-known wildlife photographer and retired director of the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita, said that under normal winter conditions, the eagles spread along the state’s rivers and streams, reservoirs and lakes to feed.
“When all those rivers, lakes, ponds and reservoirs freeze up, they go looking for open water,” Gress said. “Fortunately, we have a lot of open water here, and that’s what brings them to Wichita. If they have any tolerance of people, they can do pretty well here.”
Even in very cold conditions, flowing waters on Wichita’s rivers often remain ice-free, especially where dams create small waterfalls. Deep lakes, like sandpits, also are less likely to freeze compared to shallower lakes and ponds. Local eagle photographers say there was no doubt the recent cold brought more bald eagles to such waters within Wichita.
“It was pretty slow until last week,” said Jeri Barroll, who was also on eagle patrol Thursday afternoon. “We weren’t seeing many, but now there’s more. It’s still not like last year, though, when if someone wanted to see an eagle, I could just tell them to be at Twin Lakes at 5 (p.m.) and they’d be there. They aren’t as predictable this year.”
Like Streker and several others, Barroll said she became deeply interested in bald eagle photography when a pair of bald eagles began building and maintaining a nest at the Twin Lakes shopping center, just south of 21st and Amidon. Most winter days since, several photographers gather at the location hoping to get shots of eagles roosting in the cottonwoods around the lake.
Gress said that pair of eagles appears to have relocated their nesting attempts to a private lake, well within a housing area, several miles to the north. He said another pair has been working on nesting in the south part of the Wichita area the past two years. Bald eagle nests have been scattered up and down the Arkansas River from Wichita to Oklahoma for quite a few years.
Streker said that, in years past, he has taken good bald eagle photos along the Arkansas River, from the Lincoln Street dam southward.
“I don’t know if it’s some construction down there, but this year it seems like about everything is up here,” he said while standing near Twin Lakes. He and Barroll said they’ve had some good morning searches along a stretch of the Arkansas River just south and west of Twin Lakes.
The warmer weather in the forecast for the next several days will probably thaw rivers and lake across southern Kansas and cause Wichita’s recent eagle population to scatter.
“That happens,” Gress said, “and if it gets really, really cold, they may all head south to Oklahoma or somewhere, but when it warms up again, those birds will be back. It doesn’t seem like flying some distance means anything to them.”
Hours spent looking for the birds doesn’t bother the Wichita bald eagle paparazzi, either.
“We’ll leave our house at around 8 (a.m.) and think we’ll spend a couple of hours looking for eagles,” Barroll said of weekends with her husband, John Rhodes. “But we’re lucky if we get home by 3 (p.m.). There are a lot of hawks in now, too, and they’re a lot of fun.”
Gress said that with a little looking, people should be able to find wintering bald eagles in south-central Kansas no matter the weather.
“I was out at Lake Afton the other day and there was a big bird sitting in a tree right beside the lake. I drove a half-mile to the north and ran into another bald eagle,” he said. “That same day I saw three of them at Cheney (Reservoir). They used to be a rare sighting in Kansas; now, if you go around lakes and rivers, they’re pretty common.”