Bald Eagle Sightings Just a Short Drive Away in Illinois
Many eagles spend their winters near Pere Marquette State Park, not far from Wentzville.
Every winter, when conditions farther north get too severe, bald eagles fly south in droves to spend the coldest months hunting in the counties around Pere Marquette State Park, north of Alton, IL.
An estimated 500-1,000 bald eagles make the yearly trek from homes in Canada, Minnesota and Wisconsin to enjoy the comparatively mild Midwest winter.
“They’re coming because the rivers in the far north are freezing, and it forces the eagles to fly farther south” said Scott Isringhausen, site interpreter at Pere Marquette State Park. “What I like to tell folks is this is the eagles’ Florida. If it was a real mild year, the eagles are kind of like me--why fly that extra distance? But this can be just a great place to see them.”
The reason eagles come to this area, approximately a 90-minute drive from Wentzville, is the open water caused by the lock and dam system, plus river ferries breaking up the ice. There are also three major rivers in a close geographic area – the Illinois and Mississippi near Grafton and the Mississippi and Missouri near Wood River and Alton. The plentiful open water allows the eagles to seek their natural prey--fish and water fowl. The prime months for viewing eagles in this area are December, January, February and March.
“We have something not very many people in the United States get to see,” said Don Green of Wood River, IL., an accomplished eagle photographer. “They’re right here in our backyard.”
That backyard's focal point is the River Road – Illinois Highway 100 — running north from Alton, through Grafton, to the park and beyond. Eagles are frequently seen in the Illinois counties of Madison, Calhoun and Jersey, Isringhausen said.
During winter, the only place in the world with a better concentration of eagles than the Pere Marquette area is the Klamath Valley in northern California and southern Oregon, where many Alaska eagles winter, Isringhausen said.
“The second-best place in the lower 48 states (to view eagles) during the winter is right here,” he said.
Several times each eagle season, Isringhausen leads the “Bald Eagle Days” viewing trips out of Pere Marquette. The free trip, which starts at 8:30 a.m. and usually ends at 3 p.m., will be offered 17 more times this season. The next trip is January 22, and the final trip is March 9. Reservations are required and can be made by calling the park office at 618-786-2331.
“The best is probably still to come,” Isringhausen said. “The last week in January and the first 10 days in February.”
Groups are limited to 50 people. The first 13 who register can ride in the park van with Isringhausen. The rest of the group follows in their personal vehicles. He took a group of 30 eagle watchers out on Monday.
“We saw about 40 eagles,” he said. “We had a successful day. We saw some flying, some soaring by the bluffs, quite a few of them sitting in the trees, a couple of them sitting on the ice. We did not see any swoop down and catch fish--that’s a rarity. We had some real close views though.”
They also saw six deer, a flock of snow geese and a pileated woodpecker.
The program begins with an hour or so indoors, where participants can view stuffed young and mature eagles plus replica eagle eggs and nests, handle a real eagle wing and watch a 20-minute video describing the life cycle of eagles and some of the hazards they face in the wild. Eagles are amazing birds. Adults are typically 10 to 14 pounds, with a 6 to 7.5-foot wingspan and eyesight about five times better than humans.
“An eagle can see a fish up to a half a mile away on the surface of the water, and can see a rabbit as much as two miles away running across the ground,” Isringhausen said. “They have real good eyesight.”
The gizzard shad, easily stunned by boats and therefore easy prey, is on the top of the eagles' list of local favorites. But eagles are scavengers and opportunistic feeders, Isringhausen said, so they aren’t too picky. Ducks and Canada geese are also on the menu whenever possible.
“We’ll take a short hike to see an active eagle’s nest,” he said. “I’ll set the scope up (to view) the nest, for everyone to look at.”
The next leg crosses the Illinois River on the Brussels Ferry into Calhoun County, stopping briefly at the wildlife refuge office. The lunch stop every day except for Monday is at the Barefoot Restaurant in Hardin, IL.
“Typically we watch five, six, or seven eagles right there while we eat,” he said.
Isringhausen stops several other times during the day, depending on where the eagles are. The tour is usually back to the park by about 3 p.m. Participants range in age from four year olds to folks in their 80s, Isringhausen said.
“It really appeals to a large crowd,” he said.
Green, retired from a position with the Boy Scouts, goes in search of eagles nearly every day.
“I enjoy the outdoors,” he said. “The eagles being close, and the pelicans, has been a very good time for me.”
Cold weather is in the forecast, which should make eagle watching better.
“This weather we’re getting now should be fabulous, in the next couple of weeks, as far as seeing eagles,” he said. “As it gets colder, the eagles will be more congregated toward the spots that have the open water. As we get a lot of ice in the river, they’re going to be looking at the ferries and the lock and dams. When it’s real mild, there are streams and ponds (free of ice) and the eagles can just be scattered all throughout the area.”
Here is the remaining schedule for the Pere Marquette Bald Eagle Days program: January 22-26, 29-31; February 1,2, 12, 13, 26 and 27; March 2, 7 and 9.
Getting There from Wentzville
Take Interstate 70 East to exit 232A-232B to I-270 North. Take I-270 to Missouri Highway 367 North (exit 31B).
Missouri 367 becomes Missouri 67--continue north until crossing the bridge into Illinois. Turn left off the bridge, pass the Alton Casino on the left and stay in the left lane to continue on Illinois 100, the River Road.
The River road goes through Elsah and Grafton. The park is about 20 miles past Alton, on the right (bluff side).
The Visitors Center parking lot is the first lot on the left.