Wintering eagles are just a few hours away
(published 2-10-05)

My last column was about winter bird watching and the birds that make this season special. Now comes part two, but with a focus on one species, the bald eagle.

Winter is indeed the best time to go eagle watching. The birds congregate on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers in spots where open water allows them to catch fish. If you don’t mind a road trip, you can easily observe bald eagles through early March, before most of the birds return to their northern nesting grounds.

I saw my first bald eagle in the wild in 1996 and the memory is still vivid. I was walking with a naturalist at Kiawah Island, S.C., when we noticed a large dark raptor soaring above. Our binoculars then confirmed the trademark white head and white tail—a postcard image against the morning’s clear blue sky.

My experience at Kiawah made me want to see more eagles, so a few months later I joined a bus full of birders for a trip to the Mississippi. On that bitter-cold February day, my number of lifetime eagle sightings rose from one to about 50.

The winter eagle population in Illinois is healthy and growing—a great comeback story considering that about 40 years ago our national symbol appeared headed for extinction. You can’t help but think of that when watching these noble birds of prey.

But where to watch? There are many options. If you can spare two days instead of one, I recommend an overnight trip to the Mississippi. Spending the night in eagle country lets you be at the river in the early morning, when the birds are most active.

In Galena, the Eagle Nature Foundation sponsors bald eagle bus tours on selected Saturday mornings. For details, call 815-594-2306 or visit If you prefer an independent tour, consider visiting Cassville, Wis., or Guttenberg, Iowa. Both river towns are near Lock and Dam No. 10 and two power-generating plants, which ensures plenty of unfrozen water for the birds. The lock and dam has an observation deck for eagle watchers, as does Cassville’s Riverside Park.

Further south, in Illinois, a good starting point for a self-guided driving tour is Lock and Dam No. 12, just north of Savanna. From there, just follow the Mississippi River south along Highway 84, stopping where you please. Lock and Dam No. 13, five miles north of Fulton, provides a viewing platform and heated restrooms too!

Another great vantage point is across the river from Fulton in Clinton, Iowa. Just north of town is Eagle Point Park, where you can look down on the dam and watch the eagles from above.

The nearest eagle watch option is Starved Rock State Park in Utica—about 85 miles away. If you go, head for the observation deck at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center in Ottawa, located across the Illinois River from the park. It’s open seven days a week and offers fine views of Plum Island, a haven for wintering eagles. For more information, call 815-667-4054 or visit

Reiter is a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, resident who enjoys birding at home and in the field. He can be reached at

Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.