Bald Eagle Spotting along the Mississippi River this Winter

Heather Raulerson

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Bald Eagles are beautiful and majestic animals. Most of the time, we only get to see them at zoos, where they are perched stationary on a tree limb. Usually, they are rescued and are recovering from an injury. However, these Bald Eagles are not in zoos; they hang out for the winter along the Mississippi River. Did you know that their name comes from the Old English word “balde,’’ meaning “white-headed?” Here is everything you need to know about eagle watching for you to be an expert and spot them with ease!

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Every winter, Bald Eagles migrate down the Mississippi River from Canada, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin as the water freezes. They fly south to warmer weather and open waters for easy access to a fresh food source where they make their winter home along the limestone bluffs less than 25 miles north of St. Louis on the Great River Road from December to mid-February. Early risers can see the eagles begin to soar over the Mississippi River by the confluence of the Missouri, Mississippi, and Illinois rivers every day during the winter. From Alton to Pere Marquette and everywhere in between on the National Scenic Byway, you have the chance to see anywhere between 20 to 150 eagles flying overhead against the bright blue winter skies.

How Do You Spot Bald Eagles?

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First and foremost, keep your eyes on the road if you travel on the Great River Road. Make sure you have a co-pilot that can do the spotting, so your eyes don’t leave the road ahead of you. Second, as my mom told me if you see a group of cars pulled over on the side of the road, pull over as well. Most likely, someone spotted an eagle or a bunch of them, and everyone is following the leader and wanting to catch a glimpse of our national bird.

The third tip is to search for contrast in the trees. During the day, eagles spend a lot of time perched in trees watching the river for food; if you do spot some, they swoop down over the water, quickly using their talons to snatch fish from the water. Adult bald eagles are dark brown color with yellow beaks and feet with a white head and tail. The juveniles are all brown and gradually achieve adult coloration at the age of four. Scan the trees looking for the white head, and if you see a large bird soaring overhead, remember, look for the white head.

Bald eagles are among the largest North American birds with wingspans of 6.5-7.5 feet. And the females are slightly larger than the males.

Where Can You Find Bald Eagles?

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Several spots along the National Scenic Byway offer excellent advantage points for you to view bald eagles. Each location has the potential for you to see a couple of eagles to many of them. You can work your way south or north along the route. I’ll list the locations for you to go south to north as there tend to be more bald eagles north. Here is a list of some places and where to look for these noble birds.

Pere Marquette State Park

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At Pere Marquette State Park, you can usually sign up for the Bald Eagle watch tour. Although this year, visitors are allowed to explore on their own with the help of location signs. Last year I was able to go on this tour. We had a guide that presented information about the bald eagles. We learned how to distinguish between juvenile and adult bald eagles, what they eat, and why they make this area of the Meeting of the Great Rivers their winter home. The tour starts at the park's visitor center at 8:30 a.m., and you need to make reservations in advance. We could see plenty of eagles all day long on this observational drive to watch the bald eagles. Make sure to dress warmly, and having a full tank of gas is a huge plus! This year, approximately 20 bald eagles have been spotted across from the visitors center along the river.

Grafton

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Grafton is right at the Mississippi and Illinois rivers’ confluence and a great town to hang out and watch the eagles. Look for the eagles perched in trees along the riverbank, and while you are in Grafton, hop on a ride on the Grafton Sky Tour. This will take you to the top of the bluffs for an overhead view of the rivers. And while you are up there, why not enjoy a glass of wine at Aerie’s Resort. Who knows, you might see an eagle soaring high in the sky there. This year, four bald eagles were spotted around Grafton and 3-4 eagles on the way to Pere Marquette.

Alton

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There are a couple of locations in Alton where you have a chance to see bald eagles. First up is the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site. This spot is where Lewis & Clark’s winter camp was set up in 1804 and a great place to see the eagles at the Mississippi and Missouri rivers’ confluence. The next stop would be at the National Great Rivers Museum & Melvin Price Locks & Dam. When you are here, look at the trees by the road, there is a platform where you can stand on, and you will be able to see one of the eagle’s nests. This year, there have been 1-2 eagles spotted around Alton and on the way to Grafton.

There are plenty of other locations for you to look for bald eagles as there are 25 miles along the Great River Road, where they nest and feed. And there is also the other side of the rivers if you choose to take the free ferries over and back. You are guaranteed to see at least one bald eagle with all of this area, especially if you start your day early enough. I hope this list helps you spot and watch these fantastic creatures this winter along the Mighty Mississippi.

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Freelance travel writer and photographer who loves sharing her adventures from around the world. It is never too late to pursue your dream!

Rochester Hills, MI
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