Eagle watching season kicked off in Alton and surrounding areas on Saturday, January 5. To celebrate the start of the annual migration of the American bald eagle to the area along the Mississippi River, the Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau sponsored an ice block party in downtown Alton with ice carvings and a chance to win prizes with an ice putt-putt or by crushing ice cubes to reveal prize tokens. Across the Mississippi at the Audubon Center at Riverlands in West Alton, Mo., the celebration continued with a live eagle named Liberty greeting guests, children’s activities, information booths sponsored by area nature and wildlife organizations and, of course, a watch out for eagles in the center’s wetlands.
According to Patricia Hagen, Executive Director of the Audubon Center, six eagles were sighted on Friday. Further north, at the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, “About a hundred eagles were spotted in the past week,” said Jong Cambron, Public Relations Director for the Alton CVB, and confirmed by staff of Two Rivers.
As the Mississippi River begins to freeze in the north, eagles migrate south to unfrozen waters, their food source. The bald eagle feeds mainly on fish. The confluence of the Illinois River with the Mississippi north of Alton and the confluence of the Missouri River with the Mississippi south of Alton make the region a prime eagle spotting location. Many of the eagles return to nests they’ve built in this region year after year during their 15-to-20-year lifespan. The American bald eagle, the United States national symbol, is identified by its white head, neck and tail feathers, brownish-black back and breast and yellow beak. Bald eagles are not born with the white heads or tail feathers; they gradually become white as they reach maturity, in about five years.
Once on the endangered list, the American bald eagle was moved to “protected” status in 2007, as the eagle population had increased tenfold from the 1960s to the 1990s, to about 4500 nesting pairs. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act both prohibit killing, selling or otherwise harming eagles, their nests, or eggs. Today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are at least 9,789 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous United States.
Eagle watching season, perhaps the biggest draw for visitors to the Alton area, continues through March, when the eagles begin their flight back north as the weather warms and the rivers thaw. Several more eagle-related events are planned in the Alton region throughout the season. Check the Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau website for details. Alton is about a four-and-a-half hour drive southwest of Chicago, near St. Louis.
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