Eagle watching season is getting a slow start this year, but officials know it will beat last year, when mild temperatures delayed migrations and widespread flooding closed roads and canceled programs.
Illinois Department of Natural Resources employees Scott Isringhausen and Randy Holbrook have led three eagle tours around Pere Marquette State Park and Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge so far.
“We saw between 25 and 35 eagles every time that we went out,” Holbrook said. “It’s not great, but it’s better than last year.”
Ryan Brady, a biologist at Two Rivers, gave a similar report.
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“On the Christmas bird count, we had 27 eagles, and last week on a swan and eagle count, there were 42 eagles,” he said. “So they’re out there.”
American bald eagles start migrating south from Canada and the Great Lakes in November and December, when waterways freeze and impede fishing. They stay a few months in Madison, Jersey and Calhoun counties. The colder temperatures up north, the more eagles in the metro-east.
The winter before last was considered one of the best for eagle-watching in recent memory because of early frigid weather.
An employee of Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau has reported seeing about 50 eagles on her commute from Grafton to Alton in the past couple weeks.
“That cold blast right before Christmas really helped because it forced the eagles down,” said bureau president Brett Stawar.
Audubon Center at Riverlands staff have seen eight eagles at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in West Alton, Mo. Trumpeter swan watching has been much better.
“We set a record on the Tuesday before Christmas,” said Student Conservation Association intern Kevin Helenthal. “There were 1,023 (swans).”
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park ranger Roxane Krutsinger has spotted a handful of eagles at National Great Rivers Museum in East Alton, across the Mississippi from Riverlands.
“Right now, we’re experiencing unseasonably warm weather, so we haven’t seen many migratory eagles,” she said. “But we know the active nest on Illinois 143 is occupied by two of our resident eagles.”
Here is a list of eagle-watching activities coming up in January and February:
Audubon Center at Riverlands
The Audubon Center at Riverlands and Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau are kicking off eagle-watching season with the Alton-Audubon Eagle Festival from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 7 at the center, 301 Riverlands Way. It will include live eagle demonstrations, children’s crafts and expert advice. Admission is free.
The two-story center has spotting scopes along a wall of windows.
“It gives you an entire view of the Ellis Bay area,” Helenthal said. “The eagles tend to congregate in the trees just across the bay.”
During the festival, the bureau will offer 45-minute, guided Eagle Shuttle Tours from the Audubon center at 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. with stops at Maple Island, Heron Pond and Ellis Island. The cost is $5.
Beyond the festival, the center will host Birds of Winter Raptor Saturdays with live owls, hawks or falcons from TreeHouse Wildlife Center from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Jan. 14, 21 and 28 and Feb. 4; and Birds of Winter Eagle Sundays with live eagles from World Bird Sanctuary from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 8, 15, 22 and 29 and Feb. 5.
The center will host a class called Wildlife Photography: Eagles and Swans from 8:30 to 12:30 a.m. Jan. 7 and 21 and 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. Jan. 8 and 22 for beginning to intermediate photographers. It will review DSLR camera operations but focus on the art and science of wildlife photography in real settings. The cost is $100.
The Audubon center is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Admission is free. For more information, call 636-899-0090 or visit www.riverlands.audubon.org.
Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau
Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau will sponsor the Alton-Audubon Eagle Ice Festival from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 7 in conjunction with the Alton-Audubon Eagle Festival. Activities will include ice sculptures, ice putt-putt and other games in the parking lot of Alton Visitors Center, 200 Piasa St. Local merchants have donated nearly 1,000 prizes.
The rest of the month, the visitors center will host Eagle Meet and Greets from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays with live eagles, including Emrys on Jan. 14 and 28.
“He was struck by a car in Salem in 2015,” Stawar said. “He was brought up at TreeHouse Wildlife Center. He’s 3 years old now, so he’s not a full white-headed eagle yet. He’s a very cool bird.”
The bureau will offer 45-minute, guided Eagle Shuttle Tours on Saturdays in January. Buses will operate out of the Audubon center on Jan. 7 and Alton Visitors Center on Jan. 14, 21 and 28. Departure times are 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. with stops for viewing at Maple Island, Heron Pond and Ellis Island. The cost is $5.
Back this year is the bureau’s Ultimate Eagle Watchers promotion. People who go to five of 11 eagle hotspots and have cards initialed will get a free T-shirt.
“We’ve got about 500 of those to give away,” Stawar said. “It starts this week, and it will go on while supplies last.”
The bureau compiles statistics on eagle sightings from throughout the region and posts them at www.visitalton.com/eaglecount. A mobile app also is available.
Free Eagle Watcher’s Guides can be picked up at the visitors center. For more information, call 618-465-6676 or visit www.visitalton.com.
Pere Marquette State Park
Staff at Pere Marquette State Park near Grafton will lead Eagle Days tours on Jan. 17, 19, 20, 21, 23, 26, 27 and 31 and Feb. 2, 6, 7, 9, 15, 21 and 25 and March 3.
Groups meet at the park visitor's center at 8:30 a.m. They watch a short video, load into cars, cross the Illinois River on the Brussels Ferry, take an observational drive with stops in Two Rivers Wildlife Refuge, eat lunch in Hardin and return at 3 or 3:30 p.m.
Tours are limited to 50 people. Thirteen can ride in a park van, and the rest follow in vehicles. There is no charge, but reservations are required. For more information, call 618-786-3323 or visit www.dnr.illinois.gov/parks/pages/peremarquette.
Pere Marquette Lodge
Pere Marquette State Park Lodge will host an Eagle Festival from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 29. Activities include live music and vendor booths in the great room and food and drink in the restaurant and wine-tasting room.
Admission is free. Presentations with live eagles and other raptors from World Bird Sanctuary will be available at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Tickets cost $3 in advance (plus ticketing fee) or at the front desk after 10 a.m. that day.
For more information, call 618-786-2331 or visit www.pmlodge.net/category/events/page/2/.
Old Chain of Rocks Bridge
One of the largest metro-east eagle events is Eagle Days at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in Madison. It will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 14-15. Admission is free.
The festival is presented by the Missouri Department of Conservation, Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Great Rivers Greenway.
“It’s a great time to see eagles in their natural habitat, as well as enjoy an historic piece of architecture in the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge,” said Seth Treptow, communications manager for Great Rivers Greenway.
The mile-long pedestrian bridge is a good eagle-watching platform because of its proximity to a chain of rocks across the Mississippi that churns up water and provides the birds with good fishing opportunities.
During Eagle Days, visitors can look through viewing scopes with help from trained volunteers and take photos with a giant replica eagle nest. World Bird Sanctuary will give live eagle demonstrations every 20 minutes from 10 a.m. to 2:40 p.m.
Other activities include a hands-on exhibit of local birds by St. Louis Audubon, children’s art in a warming tent and demonstrations by Lewis and Clark reenactors.
People are encouraged to bundle up, wear comfortable shoes and bring binoculars. Food and drink will be available for purchase. No pets.
Parking on the Missouri side of the bridge costs $5. Parking is free on the Illinois side or at the St. Louis Welcome Center and North Riverfront Park, where shuttles will run continuously.
For more information, call 314-436-7009 or visit www.greatriversgreenway.org/eagledays/.
TreeHouse Wildlife Center
TreeHouse Wildlife Center in Dow invites the public to view live eagles from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays in January and February. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.
The non-profit center rescues and rehabilitates orphaned and injured wildlife throughout Southern Illinois. It's at 23956 Green Acres Road. For more information, call 618-466-2990 or visit http://www.treehousewildlifecenter.com/.
Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower
Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower in Hartford will host free Eagles Over the Confluence programs on Saturdays in January and February.
These include Itchy Brothers Wood Chainsaw Art from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 14; Chip Off the Block Ice Carving from noon to 2 p.m. Jan. 21; Dave Merritt Photography Workshop from 1 to 2 p.m. Jan. 28; TreeHouse Wildlife Center Birds of Prey from 1 to 3 p.m. Feb. 4; and TreeHouse Raptors Among Us from 1 to 3 p.m. Feb. 18.
Visitors also can look at eagles through spotting scopes on the tower's 50-, 100- and 150-foot-high platforms during regular hours, which are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Binoculars are encouraged.
The tower is at 435 Confluence Tower Drive. Tours cost $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, veterans and active military and $4 for children 3-12 (free for 2 and under). For more information, call 618-251-9101 or visit http://www.confluencetower.com/.
National Great Rivers Museum
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will present its annual Masters of the Sky program three times a day Feb. 18-19 at National Great Rivers Museum in East Alton. It’s an informational presentation and demonstration with a live eagle and other birds of prey from TreeHouse Wildlife Center.
Sessions begin at 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. with a limit of 250 people for each. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children (free for 3 and younger).
Free ranger-led tours of Melvin Price Locks and Dam are available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on those days and 10 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. other days. The museum is at 2 Lock and Dam Way. For more information, call 618-462-6979 or visit www.mvs.usace.army.mil/missions/recreation/riversprojectoffice/ngrm.
Meeting of the Rivers Foundation
Meeting of the Rivers Foundation will host Cub Scout Eagle Day at the National Great Rivers Museum in East Alton from 9 a.m. to noon Jan. 21.
Scouts will meet a live eagle from TreeHouse Wildlife Center and learn about its characteristics, behavior, habitat and amazing comeback. Then they will head out to Melvin Price Locks and Dam to view eagles in the wild through spotting scopes and gather around a campfire for hot cocoa.
The cost is $5 for scouts and siblings. Registration is required with Roxane Krutsinger at 618-462-6979 or visit www.mtrf.org. The museum is at 2 Lock and Dam Way.
Columbia Bottom Conservation Area
Missouri Department of Conservation will host Eagle Days from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 14-15 at Columbia Bottom Conservation Area. Spotting scopes will be set up to look over the Mississippi and Missouri confluence.
The site also is offering instruction on Photographing Eagles from 7 to 10:30 a.m. Feb. 9. Help will be available from an expert on wildlife photography. People should bring cameras and manuals. Reservations can be made at 314-877-6014 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays or 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, beginning Jan. 9.
Columbia Bottom is 3 miles north of the Interstate 270 Riverview exit on Columbia Bottom Road. It’s open daily from a half hour before sunrise to a half hour after sunset for individual eagle watching. For more information, call 314-877-6014 or visit www.mdc.mo.gov/regions/st-louis/columbia-bottom-conservation-area.
Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge
Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge will offer free Eagle Watching with a Ranger programs for all ages from 9 to 10 a.m. Jan. 7 and 14 and Feb. 4. Groups will visit multiple viewing sites in the refuge. A personal vehicle is required. People are reminded to dress for the weather. Space is limited. To register in advance, call 618-883-2524.
Two Rivers also will host Family Eagle Watching Day from noon to 4 p.m. Feb. 11. Visitors center activities will include eagle information and trivia, kids crafts, a ranger-led tour around Gilbert Lake at 11 a.m. and self-guided driving tours along the normally closed levee road along Swan Lake and the Illinois River. Admission is free.
People also can look for eagles on their own at Two Rivers. Visitor center hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays every week and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays on the first two weekends of each month.
The refuge borders the Illinois and Mississippi rivers in Calhoun, Jersey and Greene counties in Illinois and St. Charles county in Missouri. For more information, call 618-883-2524 or visit www.fws.gov/midwest/tworivers.