IM­PUL­SIVE TRAV­ELER

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY BECKY KRYS­TAL krys­talr@wash­post.com

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.

LEFT: BECKY KRYS­TAL/THE WASHINGTON POST; ABOVE: KEITH WEDOE/AL­TON RE­GIONAL CON­VEN­TION AND VIS­TORS BUREAU

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.

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