Saturday, December 19, 2009

Eagle Days

Last winter we made several day trips along the river north of the city to see bald eagles. When our friends from Hamilton, NY, Russ & Sally Lura, visited last January we convinced them to spend a frigid Saturday afternoon with us at Eagle Days.

Bald eagles were plentiful in Missouri when Lewis & Clark camped during the winter of 1803-04 just north of St. Louis. Habitat loss and senseless hunting exterminated the entire population of midwestern eagles by 1890. Missouri’s eagles were already long gone by the time DDT nearly wiped out the rest of the bald eagle population across the country.

There were no nesting pairs of bald eagles in Missouri for nearly a hundred years. In 1972 DDT was banned and it was time for the eagles to return. The Missouri Department of Conservation, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Dickerson Park Zoo of Springfield, MO started to release young bald eagles across the state in 1981. By 1990, the eagle was back. Because their old haunts in the cypress swamps of the bootheel in southeastern Missouri had long ago been cut and drained for cotton fields, modern eagles set up housekeeping along the banks of the Mississippi and a few big lakes. It's estimated that the current resident population consists of about 300 nesting pairs.

In addition to resident eagles, the middle Mississippi River Valley hosts one of North America's largest concentrations of migrant bald eagles during the winter. Annual bird counts show an annual influx of about 3000 birds drawn to areas of open water in search of fish, their preferred food. Many of the small towns on both sides of the river capitalize on the eagle migration. On the Missouri side, Clarksville has an eagle festival featuring an auto tour of eagle sites including a tree covered bluff behind the town that becomes an eagle roost in winter. On the Illinois side, festivals are held in Grafton and nearby Pere Marquette State Park that feature views from the spectacular limestone bluffs in that area. The Great River Road runs along the base of the bluffs and the river. We were captivated here last year by the sight of a large eagle riding down river on a block of ice.

We took Russ and Sally to the celebration hosted at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge by the City of Madison, IL, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources,  the Confluence Partnership, and the MO Department of Conservation [but not the MO Department of Natural Resources, which I previously mentioned, thanks to alert reader Dan Zarlenga]. This historic bridge is worth of a visit any time of the year. Built in 1929, it was once part of old Route 66. One of its most distinctive features is a 22% curve in the middle of the river, the curve built to accommodate barge navigation. The bridge closed in 1968 but was renovated in 1999 as a bike and pedestrian walkway connecting trails on both sides of the Mississippi. Just south of the bridge is a line of rapids that insures the water stays ice free all winter. This open water attracts bald eagles looking for easy fishing.

It was cold and clear when we joined the crowds of birdwatchers at Eagle Days last January. We packed into a tent to watch a live eagle program put on by the World Bird Sanctuary and McGuire, an adult male eagle. We trouped onto the frigid bridge where we saw the bare sycamore trees along the banks filled with eagles. At the bend of the bridge in the middle of the river the Audubon Society set up a big heated tent with displays on all sorts of birdwatching opportunities.

Back near the parking lot a camp of four or five canvas tents was set up. Outside the tents stood men in buckskins and funny hats holding muskets. Until that moment I was unaware that Lewis & Clark reenactors existed. One bearded fellow was demonstrating the weapons carried by the Corps, another explained the design and use of period canoe paddles. We stopped to talk to another reenactor who had a fine collection of fur trapping paraphernalia. Among his collection spread on a wool blanket on the ground I spotted a few strings of glass beads. I asked him about them. He picked up some small red ones and showed me their real gold centers. He handed me a string of about ten blue beads with white centers on a rawhide cord. “These were found in a archeological dig along the Columbia River in Oregon. They're the real thing, they are Lewis & Clark trade beads actually carried on the expedition.”

In fact the Corps of Discovery may have been saved from starvation because of these humble blue beads. The Corps brought a trunk load of beads along to trade with the natives for everything they needed from food to boats. The far western tribes were unimpressed with the expensive beads and wampum favored by eastern tribes. Lewis made the following entry in his Journal as he travelled down the Columbia: “[T]he object of foreign trade which is the most desired are the common cheap, blue or white beads, of about fifty or seventy to the penny weight, which are strung on strands a fathom in length, and sold by the yard, or the length of both arms; of these the blue beads, which are called tia commachuck, or chief beads, hold the first rank in their ideas of relative value; the most inferior kind are esteemed beyond the finest wampum, and are temptations which can always seduce them to part with their most valuable effects.”

As I turned the old blue beads over in my hand, I felt history stir.

Eagle days will be held again soon, Saturday & Sunday Jan. 16-17, 2010 at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge 9 am - 3 pm.


  1. The first time I went to my husband’s house (before he was my husband, of course), I was greeted by thousands of eagles. Eagle statues, eagle wall hangings, eagle wind chimes, eagle everything… I told him “This is NOT a home. This is an eagle museum!” My husband certainly liked eagles. But I soon discovered he had never actually seen a live eagle.

    One day, when driving down the River Road outside of Alton, I spotted an eagle sitting on a nest, while her partner perched in a tree near by. So of course, I had to rush my husband back there to see the eagles. And thus, began our eagle visits.

    At first, there were only a few of us that seemed to have much interest in the eagles. Despite the fact this pair of eagles were clearly nesting, experts told us that it was too late in the season for eagles to be nesting, and that these eagles were too young to have offspring. But we decided to listen to the behavior of the eagles, as we considered them to be the true experts in the matter.

    It was a somewhat rare opportunity, because humans aren’t generally allowed to get that close to nesting eagles. But since the eagles were the ones who built the nest right by the highway, they provided an opportunity for those of us who wanted to visit to be able to observe them from a pretty close distance.

    As time went on, the interest grew, and more and more people started gathering along the highway, even bringing their lawn chairs. But there were still people who dropped by just to warn us that we would not be seeing any babies.

    But the eagles apparently had not read the same books on eagle mating as the experts – and we got to witness the miracle. Of course, we still went through the period of thinking the babies had hatched, without knowing for sure, when the eagles started acting different but we still could not see the babies.

    But baby eagles grow pretty fast, so it wasn’t long before we finally got to see the babies in their full glory. Just seeing that made each and every trip entirely worth it… and then some.

    One of our fellow eagle watchers was a local photographer, Eric Bloemker. I know Eric spent countless hours in watch because he was one of us who began watching early, long before most people thought there was anything to really see. As a result, he got some amazing pictures.

    Some of his first pictures of the babies:

    And many more pictures:

  2. Nice write up about the bald eagle Ed! Is the eagle celebration you refer to Eagle Days, which is held each January at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge? If so, just one minor correction if I may. The event is a collaborative effort between the City of Madison, IL, The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, The Confluence Partnership (including Trailnet), and the MO Department of Conservation. The MO Department of Natural Resources, which was mentioned, is not actually involved with Eagle Days.