Soaring symbol in the heartland Eagles: Tourists are flocking to the Missouri-Illinois border along the Mississippi River in the worst of winter to see a majestic sight -- the American bald eagle.

Sun Journal

March 07, 1997|By Rosemary Armao | Rosemary Armao,SUN STAFF

GRAFTON, ILL. — C GRAFTON, Ill. -- It seems the most unlikely place to witness any marvel of nature -- the dull olive-brown-gray flatlands of the Missouri-Illinois border. And the months before spring are the worst: The trees are nothing but scrubby sticks, the limestone bluffs ragged and uninspiring, the yellow strip down the middle of Old River Road the only vibrant color.

But over the last decade, in the worst part of winter, growing numbers of tourists are trekking to these muddy shores of the frigid Mississippi River. They come, layered in down and armed with binoculars and cameras on tripods, to see American bald eagles in the wild.

This drab expanse is the campground from late October through early March for hundreds of eagles lured down the Mississippi flyway from Alaska, Canada, Minnesota and Michigan by a bounty of gizzard shad and buffalo fish, and by the relative mildness of Midwestern cold.

They fly with flocks of geese and descend at will on the slowest or weakest of them for snacks. The eagles seem to come in larger numbers since the major floods that inundated the Midwest in 1993, washing out hundreds of homes and businesses -- in effect pushing humans from the river shore.

Minting a windfall

These striking predators are minting a windfall for locals who have been quick enough to set up tours, silk-screen eagle T-shirts and sweat shirts or situate their tourist-catering restaurants, antique stores and trinket shops near the best eagle haunts.

Like most tourist stops, a lot of the business makes no sense. A man looking skyward and standing by the side of the road skirting the river can set off a chain reaction of pull-overs until the road is lined with bird gawkers. People needing a respite consume honey ice cream and hot fudge sundaes. They buy bird houses and feeders to remember their trip, though eagles would far more likely be lured to your backyard if you were to litter it with the carcasses of dead rabbits.

Eagles are doing for the heartland what whales did for New England.

Both are survivors. Upgraded from endangered to threatened animal two years ago, eagles are making a slow, steady comeback from the days before 1980 when DDT nearly wiped them out. It is still a federal offense to harass or tamper with an eagle, even a dead one.

Missouri and Illinois visitors report seeing increasing numbers of immature eagles, brown or mottled birds under the age of four that don't yet display the pure white heads and tails of their elegant parents.

Also like whales, eagles offer unforgettable encounters. The birds are huge -- females can grow as heavy as 14 pounds, males as large as nine pounds, with their enormous fringed wings. They can fly up to 45 miles an hour; their distance vision is far sharper than humans', so that even at high speed and at great heights they can detect the ripple of a fish in the water. Their talons are spear-like and powerful; their cry so dominant and haunting it is a staple of every Western movie.

"January is our No. 2 month now. It used to be our worst," says Larry Wright, whose Tara Point Inn bed and breakfast, perched on a bluff above Grafton, offers a panoramic view of the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Eagles roost and tumble in trees there, gracefully soar with wings outstretched to spans that reach nearly 8 feet, float in club-like packs on river ice floes and slam into the water with outstretched talons to yank out flopping fish.

Advertising birds

Fourteen miles west of Grafton, the visitors center in Alton, Ill., used to entice visitors by promoting riverside gambling casinos and the area's history. In the 19th century, it was the site of some of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and a stop on the Underground Railroad. But during the past four years, the center has advertised its wintering birds.

Debbie Benjamin, the center's director of sales, jokes about the weirdness of building a business on something as ephemeral as a flying raptor. "People will call the center and ask us, 'What are the eagles going to be doing Sunday?' "

Wright, who as well as running his bed and breakfast sells an eagle handbook, understands the attraction for tourists: "Robins, cardinals -- you can watch them, but you get tired of them. Eagles have this presence that says they are in charge. They have an expression about them that says, 'Don't mess with me.' "

Many of the locals know enough eagle lore to keep visitors dazzled, from how Ben Franklin actually thought turkeys were smarter to the way eagles eat fish sitting in a tree. Benjamin says visitors center guides keep daily counts of how many eagles they have seen, while rangers in Missouri and Illinois offer official weekly eagle counts.

Not always eagles

But most visitors seem thrilled at their first sight of a wild, soaring bird.

Even if it's not an eagle.

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