January used to be one of those months for biding your time, waiting for an exciting holiday or better weather. Holiday bills are coming in, the days are blustery in many parts of the country and spring looks a long way off.
Of course, those conditions still exist, but a relatively new winter activity — eagle-watching — is making January a little easier to take. It’s a cheap pastime requiring very little equipment — and it doesn’t involve a lift ticket or even, for that matter, snow.
Eagles can be found in every state in the union except Hawaii, although those found in Florida are the small southern subspecies, said Lane Richter, senior ecologist at the Audubon Center at Riverlands in West Alton, Missouri. Once an endangered species, the bald eagle has now recovered and nests in “just about all the lower 48 now,” Richter said.
While large numbers of eagles can be found in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes, “which is a huge breeding area for them,” large populations also congregate in the Chesapeake Bay area and in Florida, Richter said.
As cold weather freezes rivers in the northern section of the country, cutting the eagles off from their smorgasbord of fish, the birds move south to find free-flowing water — and dinner.
Eagles make for great watching any time, but in winter the country’s largest rivers become an eagle-watching paradise. Eagles soar and dive for food in the free-flowing waters around huge dams, as thousands of people flock to the area for a look at our national bird.
Eagle-watching is a great way to have a fun time on the cheap. Binoculars are handy for a closer look — and you can always borrow some if you don’t want to make the investment — but the only thing you really need for a successful eagle outing is warm clothing. The colder the weather, the happier the eagles. In many cases you can see eagles in conservation areas or parks with free entry.
In parts of Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas, eagle-watching has attained rock-star status, with many hotels, inns and shops offering eagle-watching specials through February. Free eagle-watching programs abound.
Here are some FREE eagle-watching programs:
- Bald Eagle Days at Pere Marquette State Park, Grafton, Illinois, January 27, 28, 29, 30; February 3, 6, 9, 10, 13, 16, 19, 25, 27. Naturalist Scott Isringhausen presents eagle programs and leads free eagle tours. Reservations required.
- Eagle Days, Clarksville, Missouri, January 26-27. Free activities include live eagle programs every hour, “Where Eagles Soar” video, activities for kids and free eagle art prints. You’ll also be able to view eagles through spotting scopes at River Front City Park.
- Free eagle watches and Clock Tower tours every Saturday and Sunday through February 10 at the Mississippi River Visitor Center on Arsenal Island, between Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island, Illinois. Reservations are required.
- Eagle Watch, Port of Burlington in Burlington, Iowa, January 26. Learn about bald eagles in a short program at the welcome center at this free event and then help count eagles at Lock and Dam 18.
- Bald Eagle Watch Weekend, Starved Rock State Park, Utica, Illinois, January 26-27. The Illinois Audubon Society hosts this free outdoor awareness weekend at Starved Rock Lodge, the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center and at the Starved Rock State Park Visitor Center.
Few areas celebrate eagles as much as they do in Alton/Grafton, Illinois. You’ll find eagle-watching specials at many local establishments, including an eagle-watching package at the Holiday Inn; a buy-one-get-one-free eagle rate at the Loft at the Whole Scoop in Grafton and a $79-per-night rate at the Comfort Inn in Alton. You can find more specials at the Alton Convention and Visitors Bureau website. Most are good through the end of February.
Looking for more eagle-watching options? Here are some in Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois and Southern Illinois.
Plus, check out the National Wildlife Federation’s 10 places to see eagles this winter.