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For eagles, this area is a sunny resort

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 6, 2009 - Like swallows returning to Capistrano, the eagles are returning to the area north of St. Louis.

As the country's major rivers freeze in the north, the symbol of America heads south to areas where the water still flows, many ending up in the bi-state area. It's not that the eagles seek warmer climes as two-footed "snowbirds" do in winter. For them, it's a matter of survival. The flowing water ensures they'll find their next meal.

Each year nearby stretches of the Missouri, Mississippi and Illinois rivers become resorts of sorts for almost 1,000 wintering eagles. The big birds start showing up in December with their peak appearances happening in late January and early February.

"We're seeing a handful at a time," Suzanne Holbrook, a spokesperson for the Alton Convention and Visitors Bureau said. "They're not here in really big numbers yet, but they're making their way here."

Holbrook said an Army Corps of Engineers official told her that many eagles have been seen in the Clarksville area and that a dip in the temperature "will push them further south."

She added: "About the third week in January, we'll really see the numbers start to climb."

Last year, some counts put the number of eagles in the area at about 50 in January. In February, the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge near Pere Marquette State Park north of Alton had 295 eagles at a time for their counts, Holbrook said. "They said, 'We never see this big a number this late in February.' People were seeing them well into March. It really depends on the weather - Mother Nature and what she's going to do."

Scott Isringhausen, a conservation resource specialist with the state park, has been leading free eagle-watching trips as part of "Bald Eagle Days" for almost 20 years.

The programs are a great way to learn more about our national symbol and catch a glimpse of them in their natural habitat, Isringhausen said.

The tours are offered several times a week through early March. The next one is Jan. 20. Registration is required and each tour is limited to 50 participants. The first 13 or 14 to sign up can ride in a van with Isringhausen; others follow in their own vehicles.

The program begins at 8:30 a.m. at the park's visitor center with an hour-long indoor program that includes a video about eagles. Participants can see stuffed mature and immature eagles and casts of eagle eggs and can "handle a real eagle wing," Isringhausen said.

The group then moves to Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge where participants will take a short hike to see a bald eagle's nest. "Hopefully, we'll get to see eagles in this area as well," he said.

The caravan will then board the Brussels Ferry to cross the Illinois River into Calhoun Country and travel to Swan Lake, part of the Wildlife Refuge. "We'll stop at the office and take a little break and talk about some of the things we've seen," Isringhausen said. "We'll also stop periodically for people to get a close-up view of the eagles."

The group then will have lunch at local restaurant (participants pay for their own meal). "Hopefully watch eagles while we eat," Isringhausen said. "Typically we do."

The tour returns to the park about 3 p.m.

"As far as numbers of eagles, you never know what you're going to see. We may see as few as 20, or we may see 150," Isringhausen said.

Here are details on Eagle Days and other eagle events:

Eagle Packages at Pere Marquette State Park

Eagle-watching packages include a one-night stay at the lodge, a welcome glass of wine and cheese in the tasting room and $10 toward breakfast in the restaurant.

  • When: Sunday-Thursday nights excluding holidays January through March
  • Where: The Lodge at Pere Marquette State Park on Illinois Highway 100 five miles northwest of Grafton in Jersey County, Ill.
  • Cost: $99 plus tax, double occupancy
  • Info: 618-786-2331, www.pmlodge.net

A Day in Eagle Country

These tours, led by Bluff City Tours Inc., are a day of eagle watching and wildlife spotting in a trolley or motor coach. They include a continental breakfast and lunch at Pere Marquette Lodge.

  • When: 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Jan. 7, 10, 14, 17, 21, 24, 28, 31; Feb. 4, 7, 11, 14
  • Where: Tours depart from and return to the upper level parking lot on the Alby Street side of Alton Square Mall, Homer Adams Parkway (Route 3) and Alton Square Drive in Alton.
  • Cost: $50
  • Info: 618-466-8693, www.bluffcitytours.com/html/eagle_packages.html

Eagle Meet and Greet

The World Bird Sanctuary will present live eagle demonstrations allowing visitors to see a live bald eagle up close and personal. Following the program, visitors can use the All Around Alton Eagle Watcher's Guide to head out to the Great River Road to see eagles in their natural habitat.

  • When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Jan, 10, 17, 24, 31
  • Where: Alton Visitors Center, 200 Piasa St., Alton
  • Cost: Free
  • Info: 1-800-258-6645 (ALTON-IL) or go to www.VisitAlton.com

Eagle Days at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge

Visitors can view eagles from scopes on the bridge, meet re-enactors representing Lewis and Clark's 1804 expedition of the Corps of Discovery, have their photo taken in a replica of an eagle's nest and see educational eagle programs repeated every 20 minutes from 10 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. The Illinois entrance to the bridge will have educational displays including a replica of the boat used by the Corps of Discovery courtesy of the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site, Hartford, Ill. and the Lewis and Clark Society of America

The Missouri Department of Conservation, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Trailnet and the city of Madison are hosting the event. It is sponsored by the Confluence, Metro East Park and Recreation District, the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Trio Foundation of St. Louis.

  • When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Jan.17-18
  • Where: Chain of Rocks Bridge, 10950 Riverview Dr. (South of I-270, off of Riverview Drive, in St. Louis)
  • Cost: Free
  • Parking: Free parking at the Missouri Welcome Center at Riverview and I-270 and at North Riverfront Park, off of Riverview south of the waterworks with free shuttles from both. Free parking will also be available at the Illinois bridge entrance. Parking at the Missouri bridge entrance, $5. (Most of the programming is at the Missouri bridge entrance and in the middle of the bridge.)
  • Info: www.trailnet.org , Kathi Weilbacher, 314-416-9930 x 111 or kathi@trailnet.org

Eagle Meet and Greet Sundays

Visitors can get a close-up look at a live bald eagle inside the National Great Rivers Museum where handlers from the World Bird Sanctuary will show off one of the birds.

  • When: Noon-4 p.m. Jan. 18 and 25 and Feb. 1 and 8
  • Where: National Great Rivers Museum, 2 Lock & Dam Way, Alton. The museum is adjacent to the Melvin Price Locks and Dams along Illinois Highway 143 (formerly the Berm Highway) two miles southeast of the Clark Bridge and two miles northwest of the intersection of Illinois State Routes 143 and 3.
  • Cost: Free
  • Info: 1-888-462-6979, www.mvs.usace.army.mil/Rivers/Events.html

Eagle Days in Clarksville

Clarksville's location near the lock and dam where the water runs free of ice makes it one of the best bald eagle watching spots in the middle Mississippi River valley. During Eagle Days, visitors can use spotting scopes set up at River Front City Park and naturalists from the Missouri Department of Conservation are on hand to answer questions.

World Bird Sanctuary of St. Louis presents live bald and golden eagle programs every hour at the Apple Shed at the southern end of town. Also at the Apple Shed are exhibits, displays and children's activities provided by the Missouri Department of Conservation as well as a video - "Where Eagles Soar" - that will run every half hour. The Clarksville Heritage Center above Lock and Dam #24, will be open. It has tourist and eagle information, spotting scopes and binoculars and a gift shop. The Clarksville Museum, normally closed in the winter, is open for those wanting to explore the history of the town.

This event is sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation, the city of Clarksville and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

  • When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Jan. 24-25
  • Where: Clarksville, MO
  • Cost: Free
  • Info: 573-242-3132 or e-mail heritagecenter@missvalley.com
  • Tip: Wear warm outdoor clothing and bring blankets for the live eagle programs (the Apple Shed is cold).

Bald Eagle Days at Pere Marquette State Park

Site interpreter Scott Isringhausen will teach visitors how to tell immature from mature birds and talk about what eagles eat and how they spend their winter months. After a video presentation, visitors will drive to view the wintering eagles. The first 13-14 participants to sign up may ride in the van. Others will drive in their own vehicles. Each day is limited to 50 participants. Registration is required. Participants should dress warmly, bring binoculars and come with a full tank of gas.

Kathie Sutin is a freelance journalist.