As a chill envelops the Midwest and snow starts to cover the ground, it’s eagle viewing season. Following the southerly migration of geese, ducks, and other waterfowl, bald eagles take up residence along the Mississippi River, offering outstanding views from St. Paul, Minnesota, to St. Louis, Missouri. While some eagles live in the area year-round, most travel through during the migration seasons in early winter and spring.
Once prevalent across the country, the bald eagle became nearly extinct during the 1970s, due in large part to wide-spread use of the now-banned pesticide, DDT. With their numbers dwindling to about 500 nesting pairs across the United States, the federal government went into action and protected the animal. Their numbers grew, and today, the population tops 300,000. With a wingspan stretching 6-8 feet, the large predators are often seen along rivers or throughout river valleys. While common in northern areas, such as Alaska and Canada, they’re also often found across the upper Midwest and Plains.
Interested in seeing eagles up-close? Here are a few areas along the Mississippi River to view eagles during winter months.
1. Winona, Minnesota
The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge runs about 260 miles, from Wabasha, Minnesota, to Rock Island, Illinois. Divided into districts, the refuge covers four states – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. At the Winona district, on the northern edge of the refuge, about 300 nests can be found. During the winter and spring migrations, you’ll find dozens of eagles perched high in trees, scouting for potential prey. Watching the majestic birds launch and patrol the sky, circling their prey is a special view. While you may feel bad for the prey, acknowledging the circle of life involved with eagle watching helps make for an enjoyable trip into nature.
2. Red Wing, Minnesota
In a 3-mile stretch between Bay Point Park and Colvill Park, you’ll find hundreds of bald eagles soaring in the sky or hanging out on tree branches as they scope out the area’s water for prey. Some stalk smaller birds, while others grab a fish from the river or nearby lakes for a meal. Seeing dozens, even hundreds, of eagles perched on branches is a magnificent sight. The white heads and black bodies stand out among the brown tree limbs and blue or gray skies. While there, keep an eye out for immature eagles, with brown, black, and white plumage. Eagles don’t attain their white head and tail until they’re about 5 years old.
3. Wabasha, Minnesota
Rescuing injured eagles and providing a home for those unable to survive on their own in the wild, the National Eagle Center is located along the Mississippi River. Featuring community outreach programs, as well as in-house programs, visitors can see eagles up-close. Step outside the facility, and you’ll be able to take in amazing views of the eagles from the center’s plaza, complete with viewing scopes. The center also hosts weekend field trips for eagle viewing.
4. La Crosse, Wisconsin
You don’t need to travel far to view eagles in La Crosse. Located south of Interstate 90, Riverside Park is part of a larger trail that takes you through wetlands and marsh for outstanding hikes. However, during eagle viewing season, park in the nearby parking lot and stroll until you find an excellent viewing spot. You’ll likely see dozens to hundreds of bald eagles perching on tree branches or patrolling the sky as they search the open water for fish or other prey. The La Crosse District of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge also offers excellent locations for eagle views, including Lake Onalaska.
5. Dubuque, Iowa
With a name like Eagle Point Park, you’d think it would be easy to see eagles during the season, and you’d be correct. With an observation area high above Lock and Dam No. 11, eagles gather for the annual winter migration. With hundreds of eagles calling the area home during winter, you’ll see them perched in trees around the city park, scanning the river for fish and other prey. You’ll also find them soaring above in the sky, as they take flight in search of their next meal or viewing spot. Bring a pair of binoculars or use the park’s viewing scopes for outstanding looks at the bird of prey.
6. Harpers Ferry, Iowa
Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry, north of Decorah, has a spiritual connection to regional Native American tribes. Located on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, Effigy Mounds is known for its burial and ceremonial mounds, many in the shape of animals, such as bears. The bluffs also offer outstanding views of eagles as they fly high above the river searching for fish and other prey. The area features a natural backdrop with its forests and wide-open water, with views of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Effigy Mounds is the site of Bald Eagle Appreciation Days during the last week of January.
7. Quad Cities, Iowa
LeClaire may be the childhood home of Buffalo Bill Cody and the original American Pickers store, but it’s also an excellent spot for eagle watching during winter months. Walk along the boardwalk at Lock and Dam Site No. 14 and you’ll have amazing views as bald eagles perch in the trees and fly overhead. The dam site offers easy pickings for meals, so you may get to see hundreds of the national symbols in the area. Another great spot for eagle watching in the area is Lock and Dam Site No. 15 at Rock Island Arsenal, about 14 miles to the south. Valid government IDs and vehicle registration are required to enter the installation for eagle viewing. Credit Island Park in Davenport is another spot for eagle viewing.
8. Keokuk, Iowa
With Lock and Dam Site No. 19 on the Mississippi River, Keokuk attracts up to 400 eagles during the winter, with some calling the southeast Iowa city home year-round. You’ll find the eagle flying several miles inland as they search for food. Along the river, you’ll find them perched in trees at Rand Park. At the dam site, walk along the old bridge to get excellent scenes of eagles perching on trees on the Illinois side of the river, or as they glide over the water, swooping down to grab fish out of the water. Keokuk hosts its annual Bald Eagle Appreciation Days the third weekend in January.
9. Quincy, Illinois
Eagles have been wintering near Quincy for more than 80 years following the opening of Lock and Dam Site No. 21. With hundreds of the majestic birds perching on trees along the Mississippi River and searching the river from the sky, bird watchers love spending time in Quincy. The city hosts its annual Great River Eagle Days the fourth weekend in January. Besides eagle viewing, the festival features Native American dancers, blessings, and food.
10. Hannibal, Missouri
Missouri is home to about 2,000 bald eagles during the winter, and Hannibal gets its fair share. The hometown of legendary author Mark Twain, who based books on his childhood in Hannibal, you’ll find the best eagle viewing at the city’s Riverfront. The refurbished Riverfront features walking trails, benches, and areas to observe eagles along “Old Man River,” as Twain may have called it. As they look for excellent viewing options high atop trees lining the river, some eagles will take to the air, so you can see plenty of the beautiful birds during the season. As you watch the eagles swoop down on the water to grab fish near the surface or scour the shoreline for a quick meal, you’ll appreciate the massive size of the eagles and their speed.
11. West Alton, Missouri
As a sanctuary for birds, you’ll find eagles year-round at the Audubon Center at Riverlands in West Alton. With 8.5 miles of trails over 3,700 acres, the nature center is an outstanding location to see and learn the stories of birds common to the Midwest, as well as migratory raptors. Opened in 2011, the Missouri center is one of 41 Audubon locations across the country, each seeking to connect people with birds and nature. While the center is home to more than 300 species of birds, including swans and gulls, bald eagles are the natural attraction. The eagles, like other birds living at the Audubon Center at Riverlands, were injured or sick and can’t survive in the wild. Still, you can see wild eagles patrolling the river, and roosting in trees during winter. With the weather perfect for allowing eagles to fish and hunt, you’ll have opportunities to see dozens of eagles during your visit. Eagles and raptors are celebrated each weekend in January and February, with Saturday dedicated to raptors, such as owls, falcons, and hawks. Eagle Sunday offers programs starring bald eagles. Both days include walks along a paved trail, featuring views of eagles and Trumpeter swans in the wild.
Pro Tip: While bald eagle watching brings out different feelings in people, such as patriotism, spirituality, or just plain old awe, you’ll want to be prepared for the weather. Dress accordingly, often in layers, as well as wear comfortable and safe shoes or hiking boots. Bring binoculars or a viewing scope, as you’ll want to get the best views possible, and a camera with a nice lens to document your experience. A thermos of hot chocolate, coffee, or tea may be a good idea, as well as healthy snacks.