Travel/Mississippi River: The eagles have landed

Travel/Mississippi River: The eagles have landed


Eager to see a bald eagle? Well, you can watch our national bird soaring with 6-foot wings, diving down at 100 mph to snatch a fish from the water's surface or perching on a tree branch. And Midwest residents don't have to travel to Alaska (or Florida) to do that. Bald-eagle sightings have increased along the Mississippi River this winter on locks and dams in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.

Just an hour north of St Louis is a great spot to see large numbers of these magnificent birds during winter, which we did recently in spite of the extreme cold.

Around Alton and Grafton is an area bounded by two rivers, the Illinois and the Mississippi, with a third, the Missouri, a few miles south. (In the native language of the then-local Illini tribe, "grafton" means "gathering of waters").

Cliffs, bluffs, woods, wetlands, bottomlands and prairies provide a paradise for a wide variety of flora and fauna. This area is on the north-south bird migratory flyway, so it's frequented by many migrating birds at different times of the year.

For most people, the most famous visitor is the bald eagle, which is attracted here by large bodies of water with adequate food supplies and land areas with minimal human disturbance. As our guide joked, "This is the eagles' Florida."

The bald eagle was on the Endangered Species List. Their numbers were down to as few as 417 nesting pairs in the 1960s because of loss of habitat and widespread use of harmful pesticides, especially DDT. Banning DDT and increased habitat protection under federal law led to a significant increase in the number of nesting bald eagles, so in 1995, the eagle's status was downgraded from "endangered" to "threatened."

It is thought that this area supports an estimated winter population of 2,500 to 3,000 eagles, and the birds are spotted daily. The wintering eagles use large trees on the river banks for daytime perches, as food is available in the open water, especially near dams (they enjoy the fish that are confused/thrown up by the locks and ferries), but they prefer large trees in the nearby sheltered valleys and ravines for night roosts.

The 15-mile scenic Great River Road between Alton and Pere Marquette State Park is very accessible to eagle-watching enthusiasts. Here the road runs along the base of limestone bluffs that rise almost 200 feet above the Mississippi River. Early French explorers, such as Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, called these ramparts "broken castles," and the scenery alone makes the drive worthwhile.

In winter, many eagle events take place, such as Bald Eagle Days from the Pere Marquette State Park Visitors Center (reservations required), or you can plan eagle viewing yourself with the aid of a pamphlet, "The Eagle Watchers Guide," which you can pick up at the Alton Visitors Center, Pere Marquette Visitor Center or the National Great Rivers Museum.

Like wolves and lions, eagles have captured people's imaginations over the centuries. The Native American Indians revered the eagle as a messenger of the gods and, as your eye is drawn upward to admire its graceful soaring, you can understand why and realize that actually legend is not a match for the reality (eagles have been tracked flying as high as 30,000 feet).

Benjamin Franklin wanted the wild turkey as the national bird, but the eagle was chosen in 1782 because it's a true American species (the only other endemic eagle in North America is the golden eagle). As we watch this magnificent bird, we're very glad the turkey wasn't chosen.

Start at the Pere Marquette State Park Visitors Center, a few miles beyond Grafton on Highway 100, the Great River Road. They have good displays on the flora and fauna and natural history of this area and lots of information on eagles, including an informative movie.

The center offers its own Bald Eagle Days program on some days in the season, which you need to sign up for or call 618-786-3323. We took part in this one on a Sunday, and it was excellent. A state park interpreter leads the program, driving some people around in a van while others follow in their own vehicles.

But, to do a viewing trip yourself, drive north from Pere Marquette about 8 miles on 100 to the Fuller Lake Wildlife Management Area. Stop and look around at the trees along both sides of the river, and you may see eagles resting on the branches. Turn and retrace your steps past the park, keeping your eagle eyes open. You may see other cars stopped, which probably means they've spotted something, and if there's a place to pull off the road, you can do the same.

Just before Grafton is the free Brussels ferry over the Illinois River. It's fun to drive your car onto the ferry and cross over to the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, where you may see bald eagles, pelicans, white geese or trumpeter swans. Cross back (the ferry runs 24/7, every 10-15 minutes, if the river is not ice-bound) and drive along the Mississippi, past Alton to the National Great Rivers Museum at the site of Melvin Price Locks and Dam. You can often see eagles in flight and feeding around this massive structure or resting in the trees along the river.

On the opposite side of the river (drive over the big bridge at Alton and turn left) is the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary (aka the Audubon Center), one of the best locations for eagle viewing. They (in conjunction with the Alton Visitor Center) were hosting the Alton-Audubon Eagle Ice festival the day were were there, with fun activities for kids. It was also fascinating to see an artist carving an ice sculpture of an eagle.

Pere Marquette Lodge in Pere Marquette State Park has rooms in the lodge or cabins on the grounds. For reservations, call 618-786-2331 or visit

Other lodging options are listed at Many restaurants in Grafton and Alton provide tasty lunch breaks. We really liked State Street Market in Alton.

Vivienne Mackie of Urbana is an ESL teacher and travel writer. Spotting eagles in the wild is a thrill, even if the weather is frigid. Don't forget binoculars.

About the bird

— The term "bald" refers to the old English word "balde," meaning white, rather than without feathers.

— Adult birds (4 to 5 years old) have a distinctive white head and tail and dark brown bodies.

— Young birds vary in color from solid dark brown to mottled brown and white plumage.

— Adult beaks and eyes are bright yellow. The hooked beaks are used for tearing flesh.

— Eyesight is very keen, up to five times better than human vision. They can see a rabbit about 2 miles away, for example. They have both monocular and binocular vision.

— Eagles are one of the largest birds of prey in the world; they are 3 to 3 1/2 feet tall with a 6 1/2- to 8-foot wingspan.

— Eagles mate for life and usually go back to the same nest, which they keep adding to. Some nests end up around 10 feet wide, weighing hundreds of pounds.

— Females weigh up to 15 pounds, males 8 1/2 to 9 pounds.

— They eat fish mainly, but sometimes also eat ducks and geese. They can also be scavengers on dead or injured wildlife, such as ducks or deer, especially in winter. They also pirate food from other birds.

— Their powerful 2-inch talons are used to take prey.

— They lay one to three eggs, which take 35 days to hatch. In 75 days, the eaglet is almost fully grown and ready to fly.

— The main predator is the raccoon, which steals eagle eggs.

— Eagles fly 20 to 40 mph in normal flight but can reach speeds of 100 mph while diving. They can fly up to 300 miles per day when migrating.

— The average age is about 15 years, but they can live up to 30 years in the wild and to 50 years in captivity.

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