As the weather turns cold, American Bald Eagles migrate from Canada south, down the Mississippi Flyway. They winter near open water, in search of fresh food. Humans, in turn, flock to where the eagles are, hoping to get a glimpse—or a great camera shot—of the majestic U.S. national bird. Alton, Illinois, is the perfect place for eagle watching. Here’s why:
Three great rivers meet in Alton
Alton sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, which alone is a great eagle watching spot. However, two other great rivers flow into the Mississippi near Alton. Northwest of town, the Illinois River flows into the Mississippi, and the Missouri River meets the Mississippi southeast of town. Eagles that have followed all three rivers often winter in Alton.
Lots of eagle watching spots
Because the area is abundant in natural eagle habitat, there are plenty of places to view the birds. In fact, the Visit Alton Eagle Watcher’s Guide lists 16 places to view eagles. This is important because eagle sighting hot spots may change day-to-day, depending on weather conditions.
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We happened to visit during an unusually cold spell with single-digit temperatures. Much of the rivers had frozen over. Because eagles follow flowing water, on those frigid days more eagles were seen near locks and dams rather than in other places.
Tip: Do pay attention to the weather. Eagles don’t migrate until the waters in the north freeze over, so during mild winters, eagles won’t be as plentiful. On the other hand, when the temperatures dip to single digits, eagles hunker down and aren’t as visible. You want to eagle watch when it’s cold but not frigid. (Who wants to be outside in single-digit temperatures anyway?)
Helpful Eagle Watcher’s Guide and app
To help guide you to the best spots for eagle watching, the Alton Regional Convention & Visitor Bureau publishes an Eagle Watcher’s Guide, both in hard copy and downloadable. The guide includes a map to the 16 eagle watching spots and information about eagle events that take place throughout the season. You can also download an Eagle Watcher’s App to your smart phone, which provides the latest eagle information, as well as information about area accommodations and dining.
Stay warm while you eagle watch
Three eagle watching hot spots have indoor viewing scopes: Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge at Swan Lake; the National Great Rivers Museum at the Melvin Price Locks & Dam; and the Audubon Center at Riverlands. You can also warm up in the visitor’s center at Pere Marquette State Park.
View eagles close up during area events
Get up close to an eagle every Saturday in January at the Alton Visitor Center. From 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. meet a rescue eagle from either the World Bird Sanctuary or the TreeHouse Wildlife Center and learn about the species and its habitats. At the TreeHouse Wildlife Center, you can also see permanent eagle residents every day. These eagles are rescues that are unable to go back into the wild.
In the following video, World Bird Sanctuary volunteer Jennifer Jones presents Liberty, a 26-year-old eagle.
Experts can lead you
You’re welcome to stop in to the Alton Visitor Center in downtown Alton to find out about the latest eagle sightings. Another option is to sign up for an eagle watching tour. Visit Alton offers 45-minute shuttle tours on Saturdays during January. The tour stops at four of the best eagle viewing locations in the area. Cost is $5.
Pere Marquette State Park offers free eagle viewing tours during eagle season (through March 1 in 2018). The tour starts with a short video at the park’s visitor center. Then caravan in your own car to areas of known recent eagle sightings. We had the pleasure of spending some time looking for eagles with Scott Isringhausen, Urban Fishing Coordinator from Department of National Resources. I was amazed at his “eagle eye,” as he pointed out eagles perched high in trees. The tour lasts until about 3:30 p.m., and includes a stop for lunch. (You must purchase your own lunch.)
Tip: Scott tells people to look for what looks like a baseball in a tree. That’s the eagle’s head.
Tip: Visitors often mistake turkey vultures for eagles. You can tell the difference in their flight. Turkey vultures form a “V” with their wings; eagles wings are straight across.
Largest population of wintering trumpeter swans
Besides the Alton area being a great place for eagle watching, it’s also home to the largest population of wintering trumpeter swans in the United States. Trumpeter swans, the largest North American waterfowl, spend the winter at the Audubon Center at Riverlands. One morning in January 2018, volunteers counted 1,375 of the birds. One local quipped that the trumpeter swans are a nice consolation prize if eagles aren’t abundant during your visit. I disagree. The graceful white trumpeter swans are a real prized find, too.
Where to stay in Alton
We stayed at the Best Western Premier Alton-St. Louis during our visit to the area. Check rates here.
Disclosures: Visit Alton hosted our stay in Alton. However, all opinions in this article are our own.
This article contains an affiliate link. If you book a room via the “Check rates here” link above, I will receive a small commission, which helps defray the cost of this website.
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