Bald eagle arrival a bit late, but it’s worth the wait
By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks
Winter weather was late this year in Missouri, and so was the arrival of migrating bald eagles.
The eagles that live in Canada and the Great Lakes states start heading south when the northern lakes and rivers freeze over, blocking them from their supply of fish.
They follow the big rivers south and Missouri is one of the leading states in the Lower 48 for attracting migrating birds because of its location on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
A survey of five Missouri state parks that traditionally attract large numbers of eagles found that only a few had arrived by late December because of mild weather.
That began to change as the New Year brought plummeting temperatures and storms to the Midwest.
Kerry Hays, natural resource manager of Roaring River State Park in the southwest corner of the state, said a few eagles were around for the park’s Eagle Day event in December.
“We had 10 or 15,” Hays said. “But once the winter storms start coming into Kansas, we’ll suddenly have 20 or 30 in the next two or three days.”
Bryan Bethel, superintendent of Truman State Park on the Harry S Truman Reservoir, said there were half a dozen eagles in the park in December.
“It’s not like what we’ll have when the snow starts falling in Iowa and Nebraska,” he said.
Any Missouri state park that is on a river or a large lake or reservoir will attract migrating bald eagles in winter. More than 2,000 bald eagles are reported in the state regularly during winter. They usually remain through February.
Missouri also is home to nesting eagles that live in the state year-round. Surveys have found eagle nests in most counties and floaters on the Current, Jacks Fork, Meramec and other rivers routinely spot eagles.
Eagle watching has become a popular winter sport in Missouri. Here are five state parks where the majestic birds can be found in winter:
Big Lake State Park: While the eagles were tardy, snow geese arrived on time at Big Lake and the neighboring Lewis and Clark State Park on the Missouri River in the northwest corner of the state.
“We have about six at the lake right now – they’re residents, a Mom and Dad and four babies,” said Russell Burge, superintendent of Big Lake. “Lake wise at the park, we’ll be looking at in the 70s.”
The two parks, along with the adjacent Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, had estimates of more than a million snow geese in December.
And while eagles are fish eaters, they follow the migrating snow geese to supplement their diet with an occasional goose.
“The most I have ever counted in one viewing was 97 eagles, and I didn’t even have to move,” said Jim Kunce, superintendent of Lewis and Clark State Park.
Visitors to the two parks get to witness the huge numbers of geese, and their interaction with the eagles.
Roaring River State Park: The state has three popular trout-fishing parks, and they also are popular with wintering eagles.
“Obviously, they are here for the fish,” said Kerry Hays, natural resource manager at Roaring River. “The eagles are here primarily on days when we don’t have fishermen on the river.”
During the winter catch-and-release season, the park is closed to fishing on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The regular season opens March 1.
“It’s interesting to watch them when they fight,” Hays said. “They engage with each other in flight, fall pretty fast and then break away.”
Locking talons in the air also is a courtship ritual for bald eagles.
Montauk State Park: Another trout-fishing park, Montauk has a resident pair of eagles that has produced at least 19 chicks on nests in the park since 2006.
Steve Bost, naturalist at the park, said a ground survey last April found 14 bald eagles in the park, which indicated they would remain year-round to nest rather than migrate north.
The Current River, the state’s most popular floating stream, has its headwaters at Montauk. Because of the eagle boom, floaters on the upper Current routinely see eagles every day.
“The eagles here have it made,” Bost said. “We don’t freeze up, they have a consistent food supply and it’s the perfect temperature all year long.
“We have an eagle paradise in the park, and everybody loves them. You never get tired of seeing those birds.”
Truman State Park: Located on a wooded peninsula that juts out into the 55,600-acre Harry S Truman Reservoir, the park has a resident population that increases with the arrival of winter migrants.
“We have a nest in the big cove on the north side of the park that has produced chicks all five years that I’ve been here,” said Bryan Bethel, park superintendent.
“We did a deer count two years ago,” Bethel said. “When we flew over with a helicopter, we counted 32 eagles in the park. We saw more eagles than we did deer.”
Confluence Point State Park: Located at the meeting of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the park is a prime spot for winter bird watching.
To get to the park, visitors must drive through the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary developed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers on the Mississippi north of St. Louis.
The state park, the federal refuge and the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Columbia Bottom Conservation Area join to create a 10,000-acre welcome mat for migrating birds.
“We have white pelicans year round, but the bulk of them show up in November,” said Quinn Kellner, the park’s natural resource manager. “We had more than 800 trumpeter swans last year – that was remarkable and recognized as the greatest concentration anywhere.
“This year we have peregrine falcons, and there are some tundra swans, too. They’re similar to trumpeters but have yellow at the base of their bills.”
Eagle numbers were growing as the weather turned colder at the end of the year, Kellner said.
“We haven’t had any ice on the river at all, and that usually precipitates the eagles showing up,” he said. “When conditions are right, and we get lots of ice, you’ll see a dozen eagles concentrated around one spot of open water.”
While the federal refuge is always open, access to the confluence may be blocked by flooding. To check conditions, visit mostateparks.com or call the park at (636) 899-1135.