Where eagles dare Searching for the national bird along the bluffs of the Mississippi River.
There’s not much more majestic than the sight of bald eagles soaring high above the bluffs of the Mississippi River. But there’s nothing majestic at all about their rubber-necking admirers on terra firma below.
Before leaving for a recent trip to the Illinois side of the river near St. Louis, I chuckled at the tips the Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau offered: “Drive defensively. Be careful where you pause in your flight and stop your vehicle. Look for designated pull-off areas and be aware of the traffic around you.”
I soon realized that such seemingly obvious advice can’t be repeated too often.
About 20 miles north of St. Louis, the landscape opens up to fields and other marshy territory thatmakes up the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary. Moments before I turned into the protected area, a large shadow flashed across the road in front of me. I nearly hit the brakes in the hopes of spotting what I assumed would be my first eagle. Then I made an instantaneous correction: It’s not a good idea to stop suddenly in the middle of a 55-mph road.
Thankfully, there are plenty of places to pull over in the 3,700-acre sanctuary managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Cars sat on the road’s wide shoulders, their drivers perched by the guardrails, photo and spotting equipment in hand.
Why do the eagles submit themselves to such paparazzi? In a word, food. As the waters of their breeding areas in Canada and the upper Great Lakes freeze, they head south for more readily available fish.
But even in the more temperate region where the Illinois, Mississippi and Missouri rivers come together, ice glazes over the water, and it was there that I had my initial up-close look at the magnificent snowbirds.
Inside the Corps’s office, several scopes were turned to a cluster of eagles on a frozen patch. The birds like riding the chunks of ice, said Patricia Hagen, executive director of the Audubon center at Riverlands.
I found it hard to carry on a conversation while so transfixed by the eagles, who combine a sense of grace and awkwardness at the same time. Shuffling along the ice, they looked a bit like expectant fathers pacing around a hospital waiting room.
“ They’re fun to watch because they’re so scrappy,” said Jane Drake, Hagen’s Audubon colleague.
Bald eagles are the ultimate opportunists, not only swooping in on someone else’s meal but also willingly partaking in roadkill. And they tend to congregate at the nearby Melvin Price Locks and Dam, where churning waters make fish even more visible to the predators capable of spotting them from half a mile away.
Off I went to the locks, one of the last in a series of 29 on the upper Mississippi that help lower boats traveling down the river. A free tour took five of us to the top of the massive structure— nearly as wide as four football fields and almost threequarters of a mile long — for a, yes, bird’s-eye view of the operation. No eagles came out to play, but there were many gulls and a barge that had to correct course after missing the entrance to the lock chamber.
I didn’t want to tarry too long after the tour concluded, because I hoped to catch the bluffs along the Mississippi at the perfect sunset moment. My journey along a large portion of the 33-mile-long Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway began in the city of Alton. As I headed north to Grafton, water rippled to my left and sheer cliffs of limestone rose along the road tomy right. Were there any eagles? I don’t know. I had eyes only for the landscape.
In Grafton, there was no escaping the reminders of the real reason I was there. Signs along Main Street declared the hamlet of less than 700 the wintering home of bald eagles. Toy versions of the bird lined one storefront. At the appropriately named Aerie’s Riverview Winery, positioned high atop a bluff, I ate dinner and watched the sunset as the Illinois and Mississippi rivers faded into inky blackness.
The next morning, I was again on the scenic byway en route to Pere Marquette State Park for a guided eagle-watching tour. Most of the other people there were locals, familiar with the park and the eagles. ( “SOARN HI” read one license plate in the parking lot.) Several good-naturedly boasted of how many birds and nests they’d seen just on the drive in. As an out-of-town novice, I already felt behind.
But it wasn’t long before the other tour participants and our guide, Scott Isringhausen, took me under their wings. About a dozen of us piled into a large van with Isringhausen for a nearly six-hour quest, and as we crisscrossed the area, I appreciated every time someone excitedly pointed out an eagle on the horizon or in a tree.
Even as our haul for the day approached 40, the novelty of seeing bald eagles never wore off. The well-prepared birders kept whipping out their binoculars, and Isringhausen would set up a scope for a better view.
Gail Wallace, an Alton eagle aficionado on the tour with her husband, William, lent me her binoculars throughout the day. Even after decades of eagle-watching, she said, she never tires of seeing them. Like many people Imet, she couldn’t help anthropomorphizing the national bird.
“ They just kind of demand this respect,” Wallace said.
She said she also enjoys eagle-watching in the region because it’s relatively easy to do, even from the comfort of a car. I took this as a challenge, given my sad record of spotting them on my own.
Back down the riverside road I went, grateful that traffic proved light as I gradually slid below the speed limit. Approaching the more densely populated Alton, I began to despair. No eagles. On a whim, I pulled into the parking lot of a public boat launch. The afternoon sun nearly blinded me, and for a few moments all I could make out were the silhouettes of cawing gulls.
Then as woosh overhead as a few eagles glided over the water. My lucky streak continued the following morning as I drove to the St. Louis airport. I picked out a half-dozen sitting in the trees along the byway.
I’d finally developed something of an eagle eye.
TheMelvin Price Locks and Dam on theMississippi River in Alton, Ill., lower vessels as they travel down the river. It's also a good place to spot bald eagles.