Eagle in Keokuk
Eagle in Keokuk

Eagles along the Mississippi, Jan. 30-Feb 2, 2004

After my recent far-flung travels, the "What's next?" question has been popping up more frequently. After Antarctica, most questioners seemed to be expecting something more exotic for a mid-winter destination than Burlington, Iowa. But the east coast of Iowa was my destination the weekend of the Super Bowl as I went in search of bald eagles. They weren't hard to find.

Bald eagles are usually quite spread out, but in winter they tend to congregate in areas where there is open water and good fishing. In my research of things to do I became aware of some of these places - the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, the Squamish River in British Columbia, the Chilkat River Valley in Alaska. And not so far from home, the dams along the upper Mississippi River. Even though most of the river is frozen, the water below the dams is turbulent and provides good fishing for the eagles. I decided to make a long weekend of it, flew into St. Louis on Friday, Jan. 30, and drove north along the west bank of the river.

For some reason my friend Craig decided looking for eagles sounded more interesting than sitting in his basement all weekend in Sioux Falls, so he drove across Iowa and we met in Burlington Friday night. Saturday morning we crossed the river into Illinois and approached Lock and Dam #18 from the south, about a 10-mile drive from town. From the boat launch just below the dam, dozens of eagles could be seen on the ice at the edge of the open water or soaring above. It was a bit too far for fishing photos so most of what we got there was eagles resting in the trees. The most astounding sight was too far for the cameras but could be seen through binoculars. On the opposite shore, safe from being disturbed by humans, there were at least 100 eagles perched in trees taking a break from feeding. I counted five eagles on one branch alone.

Eagle gets close
Eagle gets close

Next we headed down to Lock and Dam #19, which is right next to the town of Keokuk in the southeast corner of Iowa. There weren't as many eagles as at #18, dozens instead of hundreds, but the view from the Keokuk waterfront was much better for viewing and photography. They were fishing right in front of us and would perch in the trees on our side once in a while. We did swing by #18 again Saturday afternoon before calling it a day. Sunday we headed down to Keokuk for one last look before heading our separate ways. There were probably more eagles than the day before, about 100 by my count.

Craig decided he needed outrun a snowstorm so he headed back to Sioux Falls, and I continued on south to the imaginatively-named Lock and Dam #20, then #21, #22, #24, and #25. (I don't know if there ever was a #23, but it wasn't marked on the map.) Each had eagles varying in number from a few to hundreds, but viewing and photography opportunities didn't match the Keokuk waterfront. I made it to a St. Louis area hotel in time to cheer on my local team to victory in the Super Bowl, and the next morning was interested to read in my complimentary USA Today, mixed in among the Janet Jackson and Tom Brady blurbs, the following on page 6D:

More tourists become eagle watchers

The once-threatened bald eagle - the only eagle unique to North America - has become a big tourist attraction across the country, from Southern California to Florida and up to Chesapeake Bay and Hudson Valley. Some of the best eagle watching is in mid-winter along the Mississippi River, from St. Paul downstream to the southern tip of Illinois. The cold drives birds south from Canada, where they join local populations near open water hunting for food. Eagles populations have significantly increased over the past 30 years, thanks to conservation measures. The bird, striking with its white head and tail and 6-foot wingspan, is now considered "endangered" instead of "threatened," as it once was.

So I guess winter eagle viewing is a secret that is getting out. (But that last line is a typo -- it should say "'threatened' instead of 'endangered'.")

I'll admit that the photography is not great. It was overcast all weekend. There was a decent amount of light getting through the clouds, but the background of anything shot against the sky was a washed-out white. I'm sure this was not my last eagle hunting trip so I'll chalk this one up to experience and hope for blue skies next time. I have posted a few images that some may find mildly interesting.

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Photos ©1998- by Thomas O'Neil