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Eagles soar above state parks

WEST ALTON, Mo. -- Quinn Kellner had the frigid facts on bald eagle watching in winter in Missouri.

“On the coldest, most miserable days, you see the most birds,” said Kellner, who is natural resource manager of Edward “Ted” and Pat Jones-Confluence Point State Park, which sits at the meeting of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers at West Alton.

“When the river gets ice on it, they really congregate around open water to feed on fish,” Kellner said. “You can have a couple dozen eagles on the ice close to each other.”

With the resurgence of our national bird over the past decades, spotting an eagle has become a common, but still exhilarating, occurrence at many of Missouri’s state parks. Seeing an eagle is not guaranteed, just a bonus.

You can eagle watch from the warmth of your vehicle, or hike the park trails. The only required equipment is binoculars, or a spotting scope.

Most of the eagles in Missouri are migrants that head south each winter from the Great Lakes and Canada when freezing temperatures block them from the fish that are their main food supply. They begin arriving in late November, and stay around until March, depending on the weather.

But Missouri also now has permanent residents with eagles building nests along the state’s rivers and major lakes. Resident eagles have become a featured attraction of summer float trips on many Ozark rivers.

State parks centered on big lakes – Mark Twain, Pomme de Terre, Table Rock, Lake of the Ozarks, Lake Wappapello, Harry S Truman, Long Branch, and Stockton – can have resident eagles year-round, joined by migrants from the north in winter.

“Stockton Lake has an average count of 110 birds,” said Doug Rusk, natural resource manager at Stockton State Park. “It is common to see 10 to 15 eagles along the shoreline. As Stockton Lake starts to freeze, you can watch eagles trying to pick the shad out of the ice.”

Five youngsters

The Mississippi and Missouri rivers are prime viewing spots in winter.

Eagles frequent Big Lake, Lewis and Clark, and Weston Bend state parks on the Missouri north of Kansas City, and can be seen from Katy Trail State Park along the river near Portland in mid-Missouri.

On the state’s eastern border, eagles can be found on the Mississippi River from Wakonda State Park north of Hannibal south to Trail of Tears near Cape Girardeau.

Parks on smaller rivers also get their share. Eagles can be seen at Meramec, Castlewood, and Route 66 state parks on the Meramec River. Sam A. Baker State Park gets an occasional winter visitor on Big Creek and the St. Francois River. And a hiker at Cuivre River State Park recently saw five mottled juvenile eagles from the top of Frenchman’s Bluff. Bald eagles don’t get their distinctive white heads and tails until they are about five years old. Then both the male and female have similar plumage.

Eagles at the Trout Parks

Anglers aren’t the only ones that appreciate the fish stocked at the state’s three trout parks – Roaring River, Bennett Spring, and Montauk state parks.

Up to 25 eagles gather in the mornings in the sycamore trees at Roaring River State Park, and roost in the afternoon sun on the hillside across from the park’s nature center. Bennett Spring State Park has both migrating eagles and permanent residents, which built a nest south of the park along the Niangua River.

“Twenty years ago, there were only winter migrants that stayed through the cold months,” said Diane Tucker, naturalist at Bennett Spring State Park. “In the past few years, at least one breeding pair has stayed year-round and had offspring.”

At Montauk State Park, a pair of eagles has been nesting in the park since 2001, but had abandoned the eggs each March 1, frightened off by the hubbub of the opening of trout season. This year, park naturalist Stephen Bost tried a new tactic.

The nest is in the tallest pine on a ridge overlooking the bridge where the governor traditionally fires several shots with a starter’s pistol to open trout season. This year, for several weeks before the opening of the season, Bost went to the bridge and clanged on it to acclimate the birds to sharp noises.

On opening day, the siren sounded, Gov. Jay Nixon fired the pistol - and the birds stayed put. They hung around and raised three eaglets, providing year-round entertainment for floaters on the upper Current River.

Nine kayakers leaving Montauk State Park on a November float watched in amazement as an adult eagle snatched a fish from the river, and landed on a limb just above them to have a leisurely lunch.

A common goal

Jones-Confluence Point State Park, which opened in 2004, is at the only spot where you can put one foot in the Mississippi, and the other in the Missouri. It also is the perfect spot for winter eagle watching.

The park has 1,121 acres, but its neighbors are even larger. When added together, they serve as a 10,000-acre welcome mat for migrating birds and waterfowl.

The park is on the same road as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, a mosaic of 3,700 acres of waterways and wetlands next to the Melvin Price Locks and Dam on the Mississippi. The dam itself is a magnet for birds in bad weather when its outflow may be the only unfrozen water.

Also nearby is the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, which was created with wildlife and waterfowl in mind and adds 4,318 acres of prime habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently took over management of the 1,470 acres of Cora Island in the Mississippi.

“It all works in conjunction,” Kellner said. “I’ve never been in a setting where you’ve had so many agencies working toward a common goal.”

A bounty of birds

While eagles are the stars, they are not the only rare birds that gather around the confluence in winter.

“We have great egrets for much of the year, and some snowy egrets,” Kellner said. “We get American white pelicans frequently. Trumpeter swans start showing up in November-December. We get several dozen.”

On a drive through the park, a familiar face was behind a spotting scope braced on the window of an idling van. Richard Coles is a retired Washington University professor and a leading birder in the St. Louis area.

“I probably come out here three or four times a month,” Coles said. Asked what he was watching, he replied, “There’s a group of gulls over there, and what may be a long-billed dowitcher.

“A friend of mine witnessed a merlin, a rare small falcon, dismembering and eating a ring-billed gull. Back there is a really beautiful group of pintails in breeding plumage. That’s one of our prettiest ducks, with chocolate-brown heads and long tails.”

As eagle watchers get more accomplished, Coles suggested they turn their binoculars on the rest of the bounty of birds.

“The eagle is a real jazzy, sexy bird for the general public,” he said. “But for those of us out on a regular basis, you get a little benumbed.”