Look! Up in the Sky …

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Each year, eagles dip south in search of food they can’t find when the rivers freeze further north. Watching our national bird has become a major sport in St. Louis.

Holiday bills were rolling in, skies were often gray and, unless you were an ice skater, there wasn’t much to look forward to except spring which seemed a long way off.

Then several years ago the eagles landed, and January hasn’t been the same.

Suddenly St. Louisans and visitors alike realized the first month of the year in St. Louis was for the birds.

Each year, eagles dip south in search of food they can’t find when the rivers freeze further north. Watching our national bird has become a major sport in St. Louis for locals and visitors.

To help visitors glean successful encounters with the bald eagle, the World Bird Sanctuary, the Audubon Center at Riverlands and other local organizations mark eagle-watching days in the area.

January 5 is the kick-off day of a flurry of eagle activities at the Audubon Center at Riverlands with the Riverlands Eagle Festival. World Bird Sanctuary have a meet-and-greet with live eagle from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and there will be a host of kid-friendly eagle activities. Local partners–Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, Pere Marquette State Park and Jones Confluence Point State Park will participate. Short bird walks to the edge of the bay for viewing birds out on the water as well will be offered.

The center’s actually open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. so you can plan to come early and stay late. It’s located at 301 Riverlands Way in West Alton, MO.

Spotting scopes for eagle viewing will be set up in the center which is off a back water area of the Mississippi River across the bay from Ellis Island. Eagles like to roost in the winter on a strip of trees there.

“It can be a nice warm area to view bald eagles during the colder months of the year,” says Lane Richter, senior ecologist at the center. “You can get nice views of them. Last year we had quite a few visitors see them soaring over the bay or swooping down to catch cat fish in the water.”

The World Bird Sanctuary will repeat its eagle meet-and-greet (without the family activities) during “Eagle Days” at the center on Jan. 6, 13, 20, 27 and Feb. 3 and 10.

Even if warm weather keeps the eagles further north, you’ll still have a great chance to see them in their natural habitat because resident eagles produce young and stay in the area year round, Richter says.

And, there’s a bonus for those who attend Eagle Days at the center–seeing trumpeter swans that winter in the area.

“In the early 1900s there were only about 68 of them in the Lower 48 and now we’re having hundreds of them show up after they were reintroduced in the Great Lakes area,” Richter says. “Recently we’ve had over 200 and that usually increases up until January,” he says.

The birds hang around until end of February when they go back to Wisconsin, Minnesota and southern Canada for the breeding season.

“They’re really just awesome birds to see,” Richter says. They’re almost five-foot from the tip of their bill to their feet with about a seven-foot wing span. And, they’re very vocal, always communicating with each other as they fly overhead or feeding in the wetlands. Their call kind of sounds like a trumpet, or a French horn, a really rich, deep sound.”

The historic Chain of Rocks Bridge is an excellent place to view our national bird in action. Eagles can often be seen soaring above the bridge, diving into the Mississippi River and nesting nearby. The bridge, located at 10950 Riverview Drive in St. Louis, was part of Route 66. It is now open to pedestrian and bicyclists during daylight hours. Visitors can enter from either the Missouri or the Illinois side of the bridge. Tip: Dress warmly–it’s often chilly on the bridge and high winds are not uncommon.

Another eagle event will be held at Fort Bellefontaine County Park, 13002 Bellefontaine Road, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 19. The World Bird Sanctuary present an eagle program from noon to 2 p.m.

“Dress for the weather,” J. D. Magurany of the County Park system says. “You never know what we’ll get but we always have eagles.”

Insider tip: Love eagles?

Plan to return to St. Louis in March when the World Bird Sanctuary celebrates World Eagle Day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m, March 24, 2013. Not only will you learn about eagles from around the world, you’ll have a photo op with a real live eagle. Kids will delight at the craft center and tours of the wildlife hospital will also be available. Both admission and parking are FREE.

Guest Blogger Kathie Sutin a freelance writer from St. Louis, Missouri contributed this blog.