Alaska may have the largest population of bald eagles of any state, but you don't necessarily have to leave the lower 48 to see one of these majestic creatures—or hundreds of them, for that matter. From late December to early March, Alton, Illinois, becomes a mecca for bald eagle spotting.
They migrate to this St. Louis suburb during winter and can be seen soaring over the Mississippi River every day just before dawn. The Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau even hosts an annual Alton Audubon Eagle Ice Festival to celebrate their homecoming, complete with an eagle meet and greet and birdwatching shuttle rides. There are a handful of places around the city, some that only the locals know about, to spot one of these all-American birds while they're roosting in Alton.
Alton Visitor Center
The Alton Visitor Center is not only a great resource for learning about the bald eagles that migrate to the Midwest every year, but also where you can get an up-close look at one in the flesh. The center hosts meet and greets with birds from the World Bird Sanctuary, a nature preserve in Missouri. Here, you can also sign up for guided eagle tours or pick up a copy of the center's eagle watching guide before heading out on the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway to do some exploring of your own.
Riding the Brussels Ferry from nearby Grafton to Pere Marquette State Park and the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway is an experience in itself. The boat acts as a convenient link between several communities and offers a rather spectacular view of the local nature out its windows. When the eagles are in town, they like to linger around the Brussels Ferry and dock because the disruptions in the water bring fish to the surface. The boat crosses the Illinois River daily (weather permitting) and is free. The trip takes only a few minutes, but you may have to wait to board during peak times.
Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge
Bring your binoculars to the Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, located right on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, to catch a bald eagle flying along the Gilbert Lake hiking trail. This 8,500-acre refuge is home to eagles and other migratory birds, endangered species, and migratory fish. The visitors center has a viewing station with long-range binoculars, too.
Melvin Price Locks and Dam
Melvin Price Locks and Dam in Alton is designed to keep barges moving along the Upper Mississippi, but it's also part of the Audubon Society's Great River Birding Trail. Turbulence below the locks and dam, located south of the Clark Bridge and next door to the National Great Rivers Museum, creates plenty of fishing opportunities for the birds. The museum offers free tours of the dam and special eagle events during winter.
Pere Marquette State Park
Pere Marquette, located west of Grafton in Jersey County, is the largest state park in Illinois. It's easy to spot a bald eagle while wandering through the park's 8,000-acre property, but if you'd like some extra help, there are free guided tours that start from the visitor center every morning at 8:30 a.m (note that reservations are required). Some might even want to extend their stay and book a night at the Pere Marquette Lodge, whose cozy fireplace is the perfect place to warm up after a day of winter birdwatching.
Bald eagles can be spotted roosting in the trees, fishing along the rivers, and flying around in the early hours of the morning. Perhaps the best way to spot them is to look from above. The Confluence Tower south of Alton, in the small town of Hartford, has 50-, 100-, and 150-foot platforms to give you a bird's-eye view of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers below (read: prime eagle territory).