A Congress of Eagles

The Midwest
  |  Gorp.com
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Some of the nation's finest bald eagle viewing sites (in the lower 48 states) can be found in the Midwest, where the Missouri and the Mississippi begin to grow into the great rivers they will become. These waterways, their tributaries, and the lock and dam systems that line them are big attractions for bald eagles and for the birders that love them. Riverflow through the dams, and the turbulence caused by the hydroplants keep the water there free of ice even during the coldest of winters. In addition, the electricity-generating turbines kill or stun plenty of fish, which the raptors happily consume downstream.

The Cedar Glen Eagle Roost near Keokuk, Iowa, is one of the eagles favorite places because of the abundance of food and shelter. As many as 450 bald eagles find refuge on this 1,205 acre preserve from mid November through late February. Dam 19 was the first built on the Mississippi back in 1913, and the waters below it are a prime fishing area for eagles of all ages—some with the white head and tail of maturity, others with the mostly brown plumage of adolescence. The preserve encompasses three miles of Mississippi shoreline, three wooded islands, limestone bluffs, maple-sycamore glens, oak woodlands, hill prairies, and cottonwood floodplains. The eagles especially enjoy the tall trees with widely-spaced branches (which accommodate their seven-foot wing spans) that are sheltered from the wind by limestone bluffs. The best time to observe the birds is from shortly after sunrise to about 10 a.m. Montebello Park, located on the right (upriver) when approaching the Route 136 bridge from Illinois, is a great viewing spot, are Fort Edwards in Warsaw, and at the lock and dam a few miles north of the bridge on the Iowa side. Each January, Keokuk hosts Bald Eagle Days.

Another spot along the Mississippi—near Lock and Dam number 10—you'll find Cassville, Wisconsin , one of the nation's most popular eagle viewing sites. December, January, and February offer the best opportunities for spotting these majestic creatures. Clear, crisp, mornings are the best times to see eagles at their most active, soaring across the sky and swooping down to feed on fish. A new observation deck above the ferry landing in Cassville, Riverside Park, and Jack Oak Road are great places to observe eagles. Nelson Dewey State Park, with its scenic overlook and fireplace-heated shelter, is also a popular destination.

A little further down the mighty Mississippi, at Lock and Dam numbers 24 and 25, lies more prime eagle-watching territory. Hundreds of eagles spend December through March at The Sandy Island Natural History Area and in the region around Clarksville, Missouri . In Clarksville, a quaint small town south of Hannibal, a viewing station with spotting scopes is available. The Missouri Department of Conservation sponsors Eagle Days in December and January.

The area surrounding the Kingsley Dam , near Lakes McConaughy and Ogallala in Nebraska, is another eagle hot spot, where as many as 350 eagles have been seen during the peak season, between mid December and early March. The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District offers two eagle-viewing facilities, including a new heated cabin on Lake Ogallala built especially for that purpose in 1996. Here birders can spot bald eagles soaring through the air, plucking fish from the water, and perching on the tall trees that line the river. The eagles converging here are likely feeding on shad, alewife and other small fish, although eagles sometimes catch larger fish like catfish and carp.

A dam along the lower Wisconsin River creates ideal conditions for eagle viewing just north of Prairie du Sac and Sauk City, Wisconsin . Small fish, such as gizzard shad, are the fish most often captured by the eagles fishing in this area. As many as 200 eagles have been sighted along the river here, and nearby bluffs are a popular roosting location. The Ferry Bluff Eagle Council, a local conservation group, operates an overlook with spotting scopes in Prairie du Sac. The Council hosts Bald Eagle Watching Days in January to coincide with the peak viewing time.

The conditions are somewhat different in the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota. It's not an eagle wintering mecca, but is, instead, a prime breeding area. Towering white pines, an abundance of lakes, streams, and wetlands, and remote areas make this an ideal nesting and feeding habitat for the birds. Forest biologists have counted over 330 nests in the area, with over half of those occupied and active each nesting season, which begins in late February. Eggs are usually laid in early April, and the young creatures leave their nests in mid-July. Almost every single lake boasts at least one or two of the large, distinctive nests. The north shore of Lake Winnie, the Boy River, and Leech Lake are popular sites for eagle-viewing, but when eagles are so numerous, almost any place offers an opportunity to catch a glimpse.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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