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Photographers capture bald eagle family’s journey in Lake County Forest Preserves

When Liz Rose Fisher picks up her camera and heads out with her friend Tim Elliott, her family knows exactly where she’s going.

“Mom’s going to see the eagles again,” they say.

The two have spent the past few months photographing a nesting pair of bald eagles on the Fox River in the Lake County Forest Preserves in southern Lake County. In early May, a rare trio of eaglets began poking their heads out of the nest. 

What began as a weekly visit to capture the eagle family soon turned into 10 to 15 hours a week spent photographing the family’s journey.

It’s become a passion for both.

“It’s a great challenge,” said Elliott of Grayslake, who began volunteering for the Lake County Forest Preserve District in 2014 after retiring as an IT professional. 

“It’s been a huge learning process,” he said. “Now I’m the person explaining about things related to the eagles, which seems funny, but you can learn a lot in a few months.” 

Elliott was directed to the eagles’ nest as the forest preserve district’s volunteer photographer, a role he gradually took on after marking photography as an interest on his volunteer application. 

Of the district’s about 500 volunteers, Elliott is one of about 120 volunteers for the environmental education department. Along with wildlife, he photographs events and other activities, such as people hiking, biking and enjoying trails, to help promote the district and its many offerings.

“If I ask him to do something or go somewhere, he just does it,” said Mark Hurley, an environmental educator and volunteer coordinator at the Lake County Forest Preserves. “He’s right on it. I know he’s turning in photographs constantly.”

As Elliott began photographing the bald eagles, he asked Fisher of Green Oaks to join him. 

The two met as members of the Lake County Camera Club, both joining a small subgroup of the club for those interested in taking portraits. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the group no longer could meet. That left Elliott and Fisher with more time on their hands. 

“I was still going out to the forest preserves,” Elliott said. “[Fisher] wanted to go, too, because she also loves birds.”

They’ve been amazed at what they’ve seen as the pair of eagles have gone from gathering sticks for their nest to getting fish and other food for their eaglets.

Most bald eagles have one to two eaglets, Hurley said. 

“Three is really rare. I don’t think I’ve seen that,” he said. 

The other day, Elliott said, one of the babies flapped its small wings, reaching about 4 feet above the nest before plopping back down in it. Its siblings looked up from the nest as if to say, “Wow, look what he’s doing,” said Elliott, who captured the moment on film.

He and Fisher have only seconds to capture any of the action as it typically takes place quickly. Using powerful magnifying lenses, they photograph from across the Fox River over a distance the length of at least two football fields.

For them, it’s about the joy of both photography as they bounce ideas off each other and the eagles. Designated the national bird in 1782, the bald eagle has a wingspan that can reach 8 feet. 

As a young girl, Fisher remembers when the majestic bird was endangered during the 1960s and 1970s. The eagle has increased in population since it was removed from the endangered species list in 2007. 

“Eagles have made a big comeback in the United States the last 30 or 40 years,” Hurley said. “Early in the ’90s I don’t think we had an active eagle’s nest in the forest preserves. Over the last 10 years, there’s always been a report of a couple of nests in the forest preserves and also on private property.”

The presence of the bald eagles speaks to the health of the area’s waters and land, he said. 

Elliott and Fisher might have only a couple of weeks left before the eaglets fly away, but they’re hoping the parent eagles return to the nest. 

“What’s cool about it is they’ll use the nest over and over again year after year as long as nothing happens to the parents. They add to it every time, so the nest can get quite big,” said Hurley, who has seen documented nests the size of small cars.

Learning about the behavior of the eagles has fascinated Fisher, who retired about five years ago as a teacher for the Special Education District of Lake County.

“When I started hearing there were bald eagles here, I was just so excited. … We’ve been on this whole journey, which is amazing,” she said.

Fisher taught children who are deaf and hard of hearing and used photography to help with language development.

“When you love something, you find a way to include it in everything you do,” she said. 

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