A Gathering of Eagles

USACE–Huntington District
Published Feb. 28, 2014

Three members of the Huntington District traveled to Illinois along the Mississippi River to take part in a Value Engineering Study on the Marseilles Dam - and ran into surprising weather and an unexpected sight.

John Clarkson, Derek Maxey and Amy Riffee arrived in the Rock Island / Moline, Ill., area early in January 2014 - just in time to run into a freezing storm, courtesy of the Polar Vortex.

Maxey said, "The ice was so cold it wasn't even slick, your feet and car tires would stick to it. Let me tell you, boots, thermals, wool socks, ski coat/gloves, were no match for -20 degrees."

On their first morning, the river was frozen, with several inches of snow on the ground. As the trio arrived at the Rock Island Arsenal, which is located on an island in the river, they noticed an unusual gathering nearby.

Maxey said, "I noticed a large collection of birds ice fishing over an area of open water created by a warm water outlet from the town. There were so many birds my initial reaction was that they were seagulls or buzzards. I was able to pull off the road and look at them a little closer, and sure enough, they were bald eagles, at least a hundred!

"Locals told us that in the summer months they do tend to be more solitary. But in the winter they really swarm to our lock and dam projects that tend to provide a food source in an otherwise barren landscape."

When the river freezes, the eagles congregate whereever they can find some open water for fishing - and since the temperatures were the lowest they had been in 20 years, the congregation of eagles was also the largest in that time.

Clarkson, Maxey and Riffee were there to perform an Army-led Value Engineering Study. The project being studied was Rock Island District's Marseilles Dam and Barge Repair Project on the Illinois River. The Rock Island and Pittsburgh Districts are the only Inland Navigation Design Centers (INDCs) in the country.

The dam was impacted last spring when a downbound tow broke apart, sending runway barges colliding into the tainter gates and support piers.

Even though the eagles are an annual event at the site, the large number made for an interesting sideline for the Value Engineering team. "Every day the team would kick off the morning with eagle stories and compare pictures," Maxey said. "For me, it was certainly a once in a lifetime experience."