Eagle-watching season takes flight in the St. Louis region at Alton … – St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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Theo Wagoner, 4, of St. Charles, peers at Liberty the bald eagle through an opening on the frosted windows at FLOCK Food Truck Park during the Alton Eagle Ice Festival on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. The family friendly festival featured Liberty, ice carvers and food trucks to kick off the eagle-watching season. 
ALTON — Prime eagle-watching season in the St. Louis region is here, prompting hundreds of bird lovers to flock to Alton Saturday and bask in all things American Bald Eagle.
Alton and surrounding areas along the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers are some of the best spots to see eagles in the continental United States this time of year. The open water of the rivers make the area a popular pitstop for the majestic raptors on their journey down the Mississippi Flyway, the migratory path bald eagles and hundreds of other bird species take from breeding grounds in Canada and the northern U.S. to winter south of the Gulf of Mexico.
In Alton, the birds’ arrival was celebrated Saturday with the annual Alton Eagle Ice Festival where visitors ventured out on eagle-watching hikes and tours, listened to nature talks and watched as carvers live-sculpted a bald eagle out of a hunk of ice.
And, of course, there were plenty of eagles.
Jennifer Jones, a volunteer naturalist with the World Bird Sanctuary, acted as caretaker for Liberty, the bald eagle on display for up-close encounters at FLOCK Food Truck Park, one of three locations for the event Saturday.
“Some people say Christmas is the best time of year,” Jones said. “But for me, it’s eagle season.”
The best time to see eagles in the area typically lasts from late December through February, directly after early cold snaps up north, Jones said.
Two bald eagles nest in a tree along Highway 143 on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Alton. 
“January really is the best though,” she added.
Illinois claims the largest population of wintering bald eagles in the continental United States with more than 3,100 eagles passing through this time of year, according to the State of Illinois Save Our Eagles campaign. That gives Illinois the second largest population of eagles in the U.S, second only to Alaska.
In Missouri, more than 2,000 eagles are typically reported each winter, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
For eagle-watching newbies, Jones recommends binoculars and warm clothes. It’s best to focus your sights on the tallest trees near the rivers to catch perched eagles, she said.
But don’t forget to also look to the sky for eagles mid-flight, she said.
“Look for the white head and tail of course,” Jones said. “An eagle’s wings will be straight across, while a vulture’s wings make a V — for vulture.”
Tara Hohman, a conservation science manager at the Audubon Center at Riverlands led guided eagle-watching hikes as part of the festival Saturday leaving from the center in the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in West Alton.
Eagle watching has improved this year compared with January 2022, Hohman said.
“The deep freeze to the north definitely helped,” she said. “We’re getting a lot more sightings.”
There were at least 20 bald eagles spotted at the sanctuary this weekend, she said. In some years, there can be 80 to 100.
Hohman recommended looking for eagles on the coldest days in January. It’s easiest to spot them early in the morning around 8 a.m. and earlier when they tend to remain in the trees, she said.
“The best time to spot eagles are the times when none of us really want to be outside,” she said. “Early and in the cold.”
Hohman said eagles and other birds like trumpeter swans are drawn to the open water of the Mississippi River for food because it doesn’t freeze over and doesn’t pose any major barriers to flight.
The area is a big draw for bird watchers.
“We get calls from people out of state all the time asking when is a good time for them to drive hours to get here to see the eagles and swans,” Hohman said.
Hazelwood resident Celena Monticelli attended the festival at the Audubon Center on Saturday with her husband and two kids, ages 10 and 13.
Jonah McDaniel, far right, stands among a crowd of onlookers, capturing Liberty the bald eagle flapp her wings inside The Flock during the Alton Eagle Ice Festival on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. The World Bird Sanctuary brought Liberty, a 32-year-old eagle, for outreach education. The family friendly festival featured Liberty, ice carvers and food trucks to kick off the eagle watching season. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com
“We come every year. We make a tradition out of it,” Monticelli said as her family members intently looked through binoculars to watch two eagles in a tree outside the Audubon Center window. “I’m Native American, so eagles have always been treasured in my culture. This is an opportunity to explain that and pass that down to my kids. They are majestic birds so we’re lucky to have them here.”
Kelly Kipp, of Creve Coeur, attended a raptor talk at the festival Saturday with her husband and two kids, ages 7 and 5. The family started bird-watching as a safe, socially distanced activity during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s just a nice way to get out of the house,” Kipp said. As she spoke, an eagle mascot flapped its wings for festivalgoers nearby and local musician Marko Polo performed songs about pigeons and local salamanders.
Kipp’s 7-year-old daughter, Eliza, had at least one memorable sighting in the center that day, even though it wasn’t an eagle.
“I saw an owl that was missing an eye!” she said.
Great Rivers & Routes, the southwest Illinois tourism bureau, will offer guided eagle-watching tours to prime viewing locations every Saturday through Feb. 25. Tours will leave from both Alton and Grafton daily at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Cory Jobe, president and CEO of the bureau, recommended that visitors bring binoculars though some sites will provide them. To learn more and purchase tickets for $15 at www.riversandroutes.com/things-to-do/buy-tickets/.
The Audubon Center at Riverlands will also offer programming through the migration season. Visitors can attend “Raptor Saturday” and “Eagle Sunday” events at the center each weekend through Feb. 12. The events feature bird-watching walks, educational talks, and campfire s’mores. Visit www.riverlands.audubon.org/events to learn more.
“We drove three hours,” said Rebecca Winsett, left, who uses binoculars to view a nesting pair of bald eagles along Highway 143 alongside her friend Shelia Hauck on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Alton. Both women live in Evanston, Indiana. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com
Josh and Marlena Renner of Alton, enjoy a cup of hot cocoa with their son Josh,6, at The Flock during the Alton Eagle Ice Festival on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. The family friendly festival featured Liberty, ice carvers and food truck to kick off the eagle watching season. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com
Onlookers admire an ice sculpture of a paddlewheel steamboat at The Flock during the Alton Eagle Ice Festival on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. The family friendly festival featured Liberty a bald eagle, ice carvers and food trucks to kick off the eagle watching season. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com
Ice carver Harvey Russell works on a sculpture of a bald eagle at The Flock during the Alton Eagle Ice Festival on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. The family friendly festival featured Liberty a bald eagle, ice carvers and food trucks to kick off the eagle watching season. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com
Jonah McDaniel, far right, stands among a crowd of onlookers, capturing Liberty the bald eagle flapp her wings inside The Flock during the Alton Eagle Ice Festival on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. The World Bird Sanctuary brought Liberty, a 32-year-old eagle, for outreach education. The family friendly festival featured Liberty, ice carvers and food trucks to kick off the eagle watching season. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com
Two bald eagles nest in a tree along Highway 143 on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Alton. 
Theo Wagoner, 4, of St. Charles, peers at Liberty the bald eagle through an opening on the frosted windows at FLOCK Food Truck Park during the Alton Eagle Ice Festival on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. The family friendly festival featured Liberty, ice carvers and food trucks to kick off the eagle-watching season. 
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Theo Wagoner, 4, of St. Charles, peers at Liberty the bald eagle through an opening on the frosted windows at FLOCK Food Truck Park during the Alton Eagle Ice Festival on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. The family friendly festival featured Liberty, ice carvers and food trucks to kick off the eagle-watching season. 
Two bald eagles nest in a tree along Highway 143 on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Alton. 
Jonah McDaniel, far right, stands among a crowd of onlookers, capturing Liberty the bald eagle flapp her wings inside The Flock during the Alton Eagle Ice Festival on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. The World Bird Sanctuary brought Liberty, a 32-year-old eagle, for outreach education. The family friendly festival featured Liberty, ice carvers and food trucks to kick off the eagle watching season. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com
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