A bald eagle flying over the Mississippi River
The national bird flies over the Mississippi, which flows through Alton, Illinois.

Bird’s-eye Views

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! OK, actually, it’s just a bird. Well, perhaps not just a bird. February is prime eagle-watching time along the Mississippi, where thousands of the majestic creatures make their winter home. Here, three ways to do eagle spotting in Alton, Illinois, a tiny town that’s a major destination for the national bird:

  1. With the Audubon Society
    West Alton’s newly opened Audubon Center at Riverlands offers viewing via spotting scopes from inside the center, open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and from an outdoor barge, open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The center is also home to nine trumpeter swans monitored by the Audubon Society and the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Look for the swans feeding on Ellis Bay and Heron Pond in the morning and at dusk.
    GO Audubon Center at Riverlands, 301 Riverlands Wy., West Alton, Missouri; 636-899-0090, riverlands.audubon.org.
  2. In a sanctuary
    If you want to get within spitting distance as well as scoping distance of eagles, make for the National Great Rivers Museum. There, you can see eagles looking for water snakes and fish over Alton’s Lock and Dam No. 2, where eagle food becomes easy prey as the Mississippi tumbles through the lock gates. On Saturday, Sunday, and Monday (February 18-20), the museum hosts the World Bird Sanctuary in the naturalist-led “Masters of the Sky” demo, during which visitors can get up close and personal with eagles, falcons, and owls inside the museum.
    GO National Great Rivers Museum, 2 Locks and Dam Wy., Alton, Illinois; 877-462-6979, mvs.usace.army.mil/Rivers/.
  3. From the bluffs
    The stone bluffs that line the Mississippi as it runs through Alton are ideal homes for roosting birds. If you want to view them from the comfort of a moving vehicle on a tour that includes both a continental breakfast and a stop for lunch, plan on spending Saturday with Bluff City Tours. The 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. tour, $52, also includes a naturalist tour guide.
    GO Bluff City Tours; 866-466-8693, bluffcitytours.com. Tours depart from the upper level of Alton Square Mall.

Where to stay: The Jackson House Bed and Breakfast (1821 Seminary St., Alton; 618-462-1426, jacksonbb.com) has two main-house rooms decked in traditional Victoriana, a former horse barn upgraded to modern luxury standards, and an earthen cottage where visitors sleep in a wood above a creek; rates range from $120-$165 a night. The Green Tree Inn (15 Mill St., Elsah, Illinois; 618-374-2821, greentreeinn.com) has five rooms, three of which can be used as a suite.

Where to eat: Castelli’s Moonlight at 255 (3400 Fosterburg Rd., Alton; 618-462-4620, castellis255.com) has been owned by the same family for 74 years, and is known regionally for a top-secret fried chicken recipe that’s been passed down through four generations. Aerie’s Riverview Winery (600 Timber Ridge, Grafton, Illinois; 618-786-8439, aerieswinery.com) offers dining and drinking with a view, and a menu that includes plenty of Missouri wines as well as from-scratch pizzas, sandwiches, and salads.


Photograph: Courtesy of the Alton Convention and Visitors Bureau