The frigid and often drab wintry Illinois landscape attracts nearly as many sightseers as the fall-color season along the Great River Road in southwestern Illinois.
There, visitors arrive armed with binoculars and stocking caps to capture a glimpse of the second-largest over-wintering bald eagle population in the world.
“I get really excited just to see the people’s eyes light up when they see an eagle or happen to be lucky enough to see an eagle fly down to get a fish,” says Scott Isringhausen, conservation resource specialist and tour guide at Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton.
An Eagle Hot Spot
Bald eagles gather near bodies of water throughout Illinois, and the communities celebrate their arrival every January and February. The Great River Road area, where the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers meet, remains a hot spot. In this area, which includes Alton, Grafton and Pere Marquette, visitors can plan their own eagle-watching adventures or participate in tours and eagle meet-and-greet activities during the season.
Food Dictates Flight
Bald eagles like southwestern Illinois for its food, including fish and waterfowl, Isringhausen says. Bald eagles from northern Wisconsin, northern Minnesota and Canada travel southward along rivers looking for food when northern waters freeze from mid-December to mid-March. The Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers join in a geographically short distance, leading to the large over-wintering population in this region.
“Bald eagles are a very opportunistic bird,” Isringhausen says. “The easier they can get their meal, the happier they are.”
The eagles often perch in trees near the area’s multiple locks and dams or follow ferries and barges that will break ice, if it has formed on the river.
Visitors can expect to see up to 50 eagles in a single day between Pere Marquette and Alton.
Of course, weather dictates the annual migration, Isringhausen says. A warm winter may keep more eagles to the north if water there remains ice-free.
In addition, the three-county area of Madison, Jersey and Calhoun has about 10 nests, one easily visible from Illinois 143. Visitors are known to sit in lawn chairs along the highway to view the activity, even beyond the migration season when the adult eagles stay to raise their young.
Community Eagle Craze
The communities surrounding the Great River Road area have responded to the demand for everything eagle, says Suzanne Halbrook, public relations director for the Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The community schedules events to ensure visitors have one-on-one contact most any weekend in January and February. Those include meet-and-greets and options for short or daylong guided tours.
In addition, local restaurants offer “bald eagle breakfasts” to the dedicated earlyrisers who want to catch the eagles’ feeding time.
Eagle-watching guests wear binoculars during breakfast at Tara Point Inn, a bed and breakfast on a bluff overlooking where the Mississippi and Illinois rivers meet.
Beall Mansion takes guests by limousine for guided tours.
Grafton Winery attracts winter travelers because its glass wall faces the riverfront. Hotels offer eagle packages, and you can shop around town to find eagle souvenirs.
The eagle-watching season in 2009 contributed more than $1.7 million to the local economy, Halbrook says.
“For a lot of our businesses, it means a difference to them being able to stay open all year,” she says. “They don’t have that winter lull that hits most tourism-related businesses.”