A wintering bald eagle hunts in the Missouri River.

Wintering Bald Eagles Put on a Show in the St. Louis Region

Wednesday January 10, 2024

By Rachel Huffman

Intelligent, stately and brazen, bald eagles have a powerful allure. If you want to spot them in their natural habitat, there’s no better place than St. Louis at this time of year.

As temperatures drop and water freezes, bald eagles migrate south in search of open water. Fortunately, the two largest rivers in North America converge in the St. Louis region, providing excellent fishing for the esteemed birds of prey.

Weather affects how many bald eagles winter in the area, but numbers typically range from 1,000 to 3,000 per year – meaning, if you know where to go, you’ll have a good chance of spotting some of our feathered friends.

A bald eagle flies over the Mississippi River.

Whether you’re an avid bird-watcher or an inquisitive traveler, your first stop should be the National Great Rivers Museum. Located at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, the museum boasts a prime position for observing bald eagles.

“The area provides safe, quiet roosting sites, and the water isn’t deep, so they can fish easily,” Roger Holloway, executive director of the World Bird Sanctuary, says. “When we have harsh winters, the water around the locks and dam is often the only open water in the area, so you’ll see more bald eagles congregated in one place. It’s not that they like being together; it’s that they don’t have a choice. Warmer winters allow them to spread out because the water in other areas doesn’t freeze.”

Cool, cold or frigid, winter always brings bald eagles to the Melvin Price Locks and Dam to hunt. “When the water churns through the dam, oxygen levels drop,” Holloway explains, “and fish that come out the other side swim more slowly because their oxygen has been depleted. In other words, they’re easy pickings for bald eagles. On any given day, you can watch them hunt sluggish gizzard shad, among other species of fish.”

The Audubon Center at Riverlands sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
Audubon Center at Riverlands | Photo by Gregg Goldman

Across the Mississippi River, the Audubon Center at Riverlands is another fantastic eagle-watching locale. From here, you can scan the tree line, looking for birds on branches, but we recommend taking a guided tour of the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, which is part of the Mississippi Flyway, a migration route used by 60 percent of all North American bird species, including 40 percent of all waterfowl. Your guide will help you pinpoint bald eagles and identify other species such as hooded mergansers, trumpeter swans and Eurasian tree sparrows.

You’ll also learn fun facts about bald eagles along the way. For example, did you know that they build enormous nests? A couple – which mates for life – uses the same nest year after year, adding more pine needles, leaves, twigs and branches to its treetop pad every season. The largest bald eagle nest on record was 10 feet wide and 20 feet tall!

The Great River Road offers stunning fall foliage along the Mississippi River.
Great River Road | Photo courtesy of Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau

If you don’t mind driving, the Great River Road in Illinois features some of the region’s most dramatic scenery, which is only enhanced by wintering bald eagles. The road winds from the National Great Rivers Museum to Alton, Grafton and beyond, with the Mississippi River on one side and soaring limestone bluffs on the other. The bluffs, noted in the journals of 17th-century explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, sheltered the fierce Piasa Bird of Native American legend. Just north of Alton, you’ll find an image of the serpent-like bird painted on the limestone cliffs.

As you follow the Great River Road, count the juvenile and adult bald eagles that you see. How can you tell the difference? Mature bald eagles have a completely white head and tail with a dark brown body and wings.

Closer to downtown St. Louis, the old Chain of Rocks Bridge offers an exciting eagle-watching experience, as well. Spanning the Mighty Mississippi on the north edge of the city, the pedestrian bridge has a dramatic 22-degree bend at the middle of the crossing, making it easier to spot eagles and other birds.

No matter where you go eagle-watching, remember to be patient – and don’t forget your binoculars!

A trainer from the World Bird Sanctuary poses with a bald eagle.
Photo courtesy of the World Bird Sanctuary

For a surefire way of seeing bald eagles, visit the World Bird Sanctuary in Eureka. Home to 13 bald eagles, the sanctuary works tirelessly to protect and preserve all manner of winged friends through conservation, rehabilitation, education and advocacy.

On weekends in January, visitors can stop by the Audubon Center at Riverlands or the Alton Visitor Center to meet and greet bald eagles from the World Bird Sanctuary.