ALTON — It’s not exactly like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano each spring, but in the Midwest, Alton is becoming synonymous with eagle-watching.
As cold weather settles over the Midwest in November through February, causing the northern Mississippi River to freeze, scores of bald eagles migrate south, taking up temporary residence in the southwestern Illinois river town.
The abundance of eagles attracts thousands of eagle oglers each winter. The City of Alton and surrounding communities have built a cottage industry around the eagles.
Information about the eagles, and where to see them, is readily available at several venues in the Alton area, including the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in West Alton, the Alton Visitor Center on the Alton riverfront and the Grafton Visitor Center.
On a recent trip to Alton, we spotted close to 30 bald eagles over a 24-hour period, and conditions were less than optimum. Extreme wintry conditions had frozen most bodies of water. There were patches of open water in the Mississippi River and areas of ice floes, but the river was largely frozen.
Several eagles were spotted on floes, floating down the river. Several more soared above the bluffs lining Route 3 between Alton and Pere Marquette State Park.
Our game plan was to cross the Clark Bridge to the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
The center has been designated as a National Audubon Society Important Birding Area. It is perched above Ellis Bay, an oxbow of the Mississippi River. And, the Melvin Price Locks and Dam are just south of the center. The open water below the dam usually attracts good numbers of eagles.
There were hundreds of gulls and a number of diving ducks below the dam, but no eagles.
However, there was enough open water in Ellis Bay to attract a few eagles. As a bonus, there were several hundred trumpeter swans. Like the eagles, the swans spend a good portion of the winter at the Riverlands Center.
We spent the rest of the afternoon driving leisurely up Route 3, searching the bluffs, trees and rivers for eagles. This portion of Route 3 has wide shoulders and it isn’t unusual to see groups of cars parked on the shoulders surrounded by eagle-watchers pointing and training binoculars toward the river or to the treetops.
Included in the trip were stops in Grafton and at Pere Marquette State Park.
There is a boat launch in Grafton with a large parking lot. Eagle watchers gather in the lot to scour the river or the bluffs on the Missouri side. Pere Marquette State Park also has a boat launch and large parking lot that make for excellent viewing.
Other hotspots suggested by VisitAlton.com include the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge at Swan Lake in Missouri, the Brussels Ferry, the Ted and Pat Jones Confluence Point State Park in Missouri and Lewis and Clark State Historic Site, the spot in Illinois adjacent to the confluence of the Missouri and Illinois rivers.
For more information, call the Alton Visitor Center at 800-258-6645 or see VisitAlton.com.
The Visitor Center offers Eagle Shuttle Tours at 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. Jan. 20 and Jan. 27. Cost is $5 per person.