Each winter, around 3,000 bald eagles fly to Illinois to make it their temporary home, settling in among the cliffs and trees in at least 27 counties around the state—making Illinois one of the best places in the entire country to spot the majestic bird. While the eagles hunt for fish in the cold waters of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, you can scan the skies for glimpses of an American mascot in the wild. Whether you are a seasoned eagle-watching pro or are ready to try it for the first time, there are many events to help you catch these birds in action during the optimal viewing months of January and February.
Quad Cities Bald Eagle Days Environmental Fair and Wild Life Art Show, Rock Island
With more than 200 informative programs and exhibits over three days, this event at the QCCA Expo Center is billed as the largest bald eagle event in the Midwest. Enjoy eagle viewing, live bird of prey shows, and the wildlife art show. Before or after the event, catch a meal of pub-style grub at Black Car Brew Pub. Grab one of their specialty beers, like the Off the Rail Ale and a half rack of ribs for the complete pub experience.
Alton-Audubon Eagle Ice Festival, Alton
Celebrate the beginning of the eagle-watching season with this free, family-friendly event at the Alton Visitor Center. Participate in a range of eagle and ice-themed activities, including Ice Putt Putt Golf and up-close encounters with live bald eagles. Ice sculptors create majestic works of frozen art as part of the event. Afterward, thaw out at Alton’s National Great Rivers Museum. The museum’s exhibits include a life-size replica of a towboat pilothouse where guests try steering a barge and an aquarium where guests can see Jurassic Fish such as the longnose gar.
Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge Eagle Watch, Marion
Six pairs of eagles and their offspring call this 44,000-acre refuge home. Guided tours take visitors to the eagle nests and through areas of high eagle-traffic, making it a great place to ensure a spotting. A short drive from the refuge, make like an eagle and dive (into a pool) at the HUB Recreation Center, which also includes a gymnasium, waterslide and lazy river in Marion. Guests can purchase an all-day pass to utilize the whole facility.
Pere Marquette State Park Bald Eagle Days, Grafton
A scenic observational drive up the bluffs of this riverfront park provides opportunities for you to view the wintering birds yourself. Informational programs teach visitors how to distinguish the difference between immature and mature eagles, what eagles eat, and why they spend the winter months in this area. Admission is free, but reservations are required. While in Grafton, keep the winter fun going with a stop at the Loading Dock Ice Rink. The Loading Dock is the area’s only waterfront entertainment destination and is located 10 minutes from Pere Marquette State Park.
Bald Eagle Watch Weekend, Oglesby
For only $1 per person, a trolley shuttles passengers between the Starved Rock Lodge, the Starved Rock Visitor Center and the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, which all house various eagle programs, activities and exhibits. Join the Starved Rock State Park naturalist for a guided eagle viewing tour. Stay overnight at Starved Rock Lodge and Conference Center, which offers rustic hotel rooms and log cabins in the woods.
Great River Eagle Days, Quincy
Immerse yourself in Native American tradition and cultures at this annual event at the Oakley Lindsay Center. See Aztec dances by the Omeyocan Dance Company while perusing Native American vendors and food booths (try the Indian Fry Bread). A traditional Blessing of the Eagle Ceremony also takes place. Experience more culture and history at the Quincy Museum in the historic Newcomb-Stillwell Mansion. The first floor is restored for tours, while the second and third floors include exhibits on dinosaurs, World War I and plenty of other topics.
Fulton-Mason Eagle Day
Centered around the Dickson Mounds Museum, this event has various activities located throughout Lewistown and Havana. A presentation from the World Bird Sanctuary, lakeside activities, wildlife viewing, crafts and more await visitors. While here, don’t miss the museum’s interpretive exhibits and hands-on activities that cover 12,000 years of history in the Illinois River Valley.
Kaskaskia Eagle Fest, Modoc
Located at the Jerry F. Costello Lock & Dam, this annual festival includes a presentation by the World Bird Sanctuary, a craft area with activities for children, and tours of the lock and dam. Guests can also take a hike to spotting scopes where they can scan for eagles. A short drive leads to Fort de Chartres. Built by the French in 1753 during the colonization of Illinois, this state historic site is open year-round and contains a museum as well as portions of the fort that have been reconstructed.
Lake Shelbyville Eagle Day, Shelbyville
This all-day event at the Lake Shelbyville Visitor Center features programs for people of all ages. At an eagle meet-and-greet, visitors can ask a handler questions about eagles and get their picture taken with the birds. In the evening, enjoy a movie at Boarman’s Roxy Theater. After being closed for 37 years, the theater reopened in 2003 thanks to a local revitalization effort. Pose for a selfie in front of the vintage-style marquee, a reconstruction of the original.