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Winter Eagle Watching on the Mighty Mississippi River

WHEN/WHERE: [PEAK] Late December to Late February (Early March): Mississippi River between Saint Louis Mo and Quincy IL most Years (March-May, October to Dec: Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota some years. Some really cold Years as far south as Cairo IL to Everglades FL).

Courtesy of strong laws for the preservation of Eagles and other raptors, and always good numbers of fish in the Mississippi River, Eagle watching has become a serious endevour during the winter, complete with special viewing platforms, bus tours, heated trolleys, and festivals. Hotels and Resturants cater to the bird watcher in the winter with specials aplenty. The river towns from Quincy IL, Hannibal MO, Louisiana, Clarksville, Winfield MO, and Alton and Grafton IL, all depend on the influx of tourists eager to see these spectacular birds. Most years, a watcher in the right place will see hundreds of perched or feeding Eagles, Bald and Golden, and with luck Herons, Trumpeter Swans, White Pelicans, and Geese (Canadian and Snow), and dozens of other bird species (Gulls, Ducks, Crows, Vultures, etc.).

For those who really want to add in a little extra, there is the World Bird Sanctuary in Eureka MO where you can get VERY close to a rehabilitated Eagles and other large birds.

Every year Bald Eagles migrate from more northern feeding areas at the water there freezes, and fly south as the Mississippi River freezes to feed in the open water below the dams and in sloughs on carp and shad. They will pick out key observation sites (Trees overlooking the river are favorites) then fly over the water to swoop down on slow cold fish, or on fish living or dead floating below the dams. They will not skip any other food option available, such as deer carcasses, ducks, pidgeons, or gulls. The colder the year, the further south the Eagles move, so it pays to look at the camera sites and reports for each river town (including local papers) and dams (Army Corps of Engineers, see links below). Trumpeter swans, snow and Canadian Geese, Pelicans, Gulls, and duck

General Tips:

See this: Simplified 'map' of Eagle Areas

Lets Start up North in Quincy IL: Quincy Illinois is a moderately sized river town on a bluff overlooking the river, with many riverside parks and rest areas, plenty of hotels and resturants. The Patio, Maid-Rite, and the Bay Watch are a few AOK eateries. For the Eagle Viewing, Travel down IL57 downriver to Lock and Dam 21. There is a parking area below the dam for Eagle viewing when the Dam itself is closed to tours. In a cold year, the Eagles will zip past here in November going south, and back past in March. If they are already gone, go to the next spot! One of many Links The local Quincy Paper...look for reports here too

On the way to Hannibal, you can (if adventurous) take a side trip to the Illinois side of Lock and Dam 21..if the weather is good (and it is not under construction still--until March 2011). This site is a very good fishing spot in warmer months, but very hard to navigate to (lots of rock roads that can be confusing)..Take I172 to Hwy 34 to the last exit before Missouri. Take it south, look for the Park and Fish signs.. Here is the COE pamphlet on it Sometimes Eagles can be seen on the pool above the flow-over portion, if the water is not frozen. If frozen, skip it.

In Hannibal there are lots of activites and side attractions, and sometimes Eagles will hang out at the riverside parks including 'Lovers Leap'. Unless I am staying to eat dinner or sleep at a hotel or one of the very intersting bed and breakfast mansions, I hit MO79 and go south to the Missouri Side of Lock and Dam 22 in Saverton MO (look for signs). Some years the Eagles will be in the trees overlooking the river, or flying over the fast water below the dam. Look fast, and if not there, continue south on MO79...

The drive from Hannibal to Louisiana is challenging if the weather turns sour, Hwy61 from Hannibal south is a 4 lane faster road in that event. Just down from Hannibal is Lock and Dam 22 near Saverton MO

If the weather allows, this drive is windy and interesting, and will take you through hills and valleys before bringing you back to the river. Whoever is not driving (or if you pull off) can enjoy looking for Eagles on any bluff or tree that overlooks the river as you go south-east on MO79.

Driving north on Hwy79 there are many good overlooks like this one along the bluffs.

You will eventually come to the town of Clarksville MO, and from Here to Chain of Rocks is the Eagle Watching 'Sweet Spot' so to speak.

Clarksville MO has a lock and dam (#24) right on its riverfront park, and is it not uncommon Dec-Feb to see literally hundreds of Eagles dotting the trees on the other side of the river, and flying over the water from dam. To top it off, Clarksville hosts Eagle Days the last week of January each year, bringing together multiple organizations and lots of fun centered on the Eagles. Includes a carnival atmosphere, and lots of hands on exhibits and a line of activities and booths. There are also lots of antique, arts and crafts shops(esp. iron and stained glass), and curio shops and small resturants and taverns throughout the small town, and they are wide open in the cold months for eagle watchers. There are also a few B&Bs if you decide to stay over. Here are a few of my shots from there:

As you reluctantly drive further southeast on 79 along the river towns, (watch the speed limit closely...lots of traps) you will make it to Winfield MO. Winfield is another prime Eagle spot, though less well known then either Clarksville or Alton. The MArket Grill is a yummy spot for food, and when ready, drive down Hwy N (just north on 79 of town) and follow the signs to the Lock and Dam 25. This has a much smaller Eagle Days activity too, but the draw is not that. This is one spot where you can really get close to live wild eagles. The slough (Sandy Slough) is lined with old cottonwoods, and the Eagles perch on them near the road. They also perch on the trees that overlook the river, stand on the river ice, feed below the dam, line the Illinois die below the dam, etc. There are also multiple trails if you are so inclined. One goes up-river from the parking lot for miles, but look for the culvert pipe that connects the slough to the main river (if there is liquid water flowing from it, it will be surrounded by flocks of pelicans, eagles, and gulls). There may be eagles in the trees over it (they will spook if you get too close), and a observation tower. Down river from the parking lot is another trail that goes to a formerly large tower (now much smaller..why it hasn't been fixed by now I will never know), with a perminently mounted spotting scope. Looking to the mouth of the slough, you will see trees down river from the slough that usually are full of eagles. Look through the gate above and below the dam, and you will also see eagles if they are about, below the dam may also have pelicans too. As you leave the lock and dam, follow HWY N down a little further, and there is a rock drive through trees that may hold Eagles too (Sand Island Preserve). Here are a few of my shots from there:

If you continue on 79 you will hit I-70 in Saint Peters, and Alton IL is the next spot (I-70, MO-370, I-270,MO-367 Hwy 67). If you are starting from Illinois, or from Saint Louis or Granite City that drive was a bit shorter LOL :0) The Alton IL area, and its associated Lock and Dam (Melvin Price), and Riverlands Bird Sanctuary (map) on Missouri and Illinois side near the Lewis and Clarke Bridge comprise a large Eagle potential area. On the Missouri Side of of the bridge, both north up and down river are many sloughs, trees, river accesses, and towers. On the Missouri side, drivng downriver, you may also see the road to the Edward and Pat Jones Park on the north side of the Missouri River-Mississippi River confluence. Eagles can be anywhere in the vast complex, (including the Upper Mississippi River Waterfowl Area too) though concentrate on trees below the dam (Maple Island), open water on the sloughs (Ellis Bay for example), and on slough ice. The Illinois side of the Dam has a visitor center, museum, and viewing area also. There is a (Bluff City Tours for one ) trolley in Alton that brings visitors out to the prime Eagle watching spots. Eagles are far from the ony large bird, as trumpeter swans, snow and canadian geese, dozens of duck species, pelicans, and herons will be anywhere there is slow open water (especially on the Missouri side down river from the Bridge, Ellis Bay). For grown-ups, Fast Eddies is a yummy eaterie and tavern, though there are many others, lots of hotels and B+Bs (like in Hannibal, using 100 year old plus river mansions), and upriver on the Illinois side is the Piasa Bird (REALLY big, though not as real :0) Here are a few of my shots from there:

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From Alton you have options...lets look at Godfrey IL, Grafton, and the confluence area of the Illinois and Mississippi. On up-river on IL100 (Great River Rd), and you touch the edge of Godfrey. Godfrey shares traffic with Alton IL, and has a bluff eagle viewing area at the John M. Olin Preserve , worth a side trip to look here for the less crowded shots. Grafton is a good way further up the River Road, but a pretty drive along the banks of the Mighty Mississippi, and has several large Eagle holding wildlife areas of its own: Pere Marquette Park and Two Rivers Wildlife Area (Trip on the Brussels Ferry is required for this one or a LONG detour), and up the Illinois river are multiple undeveloped Fish and Waterfowl Areas(The Glades, Stump Lake,Fuller Lake) . The Areas have trails and parking areas, though Pere Marquette is really the spot if long (sometimes muddy) hikes aren't on the menu, and also has a large visitors Center and lodge. If you are willing to walk lots, you can see Eagles here. Grafton has many B+Bs, Hotel, Resturants, and Wineries, and is a good base if this park complex is on your itinerary.

Down River from Alton are three wildlife/viewing areas centered on the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, two of the largest rivers in the world. North of the Missouri River on the Missouri side is the aforementiond Edward "Ted" and Pat Jones Confluence Park (also accessible via signs from Hwy 67). It is less developed then neighboring parks, but has trees that overlook both big rivers, so always a spot to check for Eagles after hitting Alton. South of the Missouri River (I-270 to Riverview noth) is the Columbia Bottom Nature Area which has lots of paved trails, roads, a very nice visitor center and museum, and a trail to the confluence. On the Illinois side of the confluence is yet another viewing spot, complete with very tall tower for the birds eye view of the confluence (off IL 3) the Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower . The confluence area may hold eagles sometimes, but is a sight in itself anytime of year.

A last spot to check on the Mississippi for those elusive Eagles in a cold year (i.e. lots of river ice) is the Chain of Rocks itself. (I 270, to IL 3, to Chain of Rocks Rd). It has no facilties and is not a place to hang out at night, but has a good 'hike and bike' bridge over the Mississippi (the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge), and has a side road that ends at the low water dam (i.e. = The Chain of Rocks). The Chain of Rocks has old water intake 'castles' above the obstruction, and spans a wide section the river. Cheteau Island (IL Side) and the long sand bar are very popular arrowhead, pottery shard, 'river glass', and rock hunting areas (the Mississippian civilization called this area home 1000 years back) and the Chain of Rocks is the last obstruction on the Mississippi...from this point one could float to New Orleans without a bump, and many fishes make the entire trip from Gulf to Chain. If it is late in Eagle Season, look here for White Pelicans as the migrate back north in the spring (by the thousands!). Sometimes a few Eagles can be seen swooping in the rough water, or perched in the trees or on the old bridge. A few last shots, from the Chain of Rocks:

Other Spots There are lots of Eagle spots all over the Missouri and Illinois region beyond the giant rivers. Anyplace with fish or roadkill can attract them. Eagles love to eat trout, so any trout spot in the winter might have them too.

Summary: There are lots of Eagle spots, and even lots more then on the MIssissippi. That said, the Mississippi River Eagle corridor is a fun place to get out of the cabin and see some big birds. If I had to pick only 3 spots in the whole area for Eagles Dec-March: 1) Clarksville, 2) Alton, 3) Winfield, though it pays to look at them all given time :)) Get out and enjoy the cold...the Eagles do. Gov't Links:

(c) 2011 Bryce L. Meyer

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