January frequently brings mediocre weather in the form of ice storms, smothering fog, cold rain, and even thundersnow. But when the weather does cooperate, this is the best time of year to dust off the binoculars and go searching for bald eagles.
The Highway 3 corridor from McClure to Olive Branch in Illinois offers ample eagle viewing spots just a short drive from Cape Girardeau. Here are some of the best places to check out:
It's rare that a new highway is more scenic than the old highway it replaced, but Highway 3 north of Thebes manages to offer a fantastic view of the Mississippi River, something that the old road doesn't have. And, if you're lucky, you might spot a bald eagle perched in a tree along the road.
Horseshoe Island Causeway
Horseshoe Lake State Fish & Wildlife Area near Olive Branch features a large, shallow lake that was once a meander bend of the Mississippi River. The lake vaguely resembles a horseshoe with an upside-down "U" shape, except for a large island in the middle. That island is a focal point of the wildlife area, as it includes a walking and bicycling trail accessed by following a causeway from the west shore. I've had good luck spotting bald eagles from both the causeway and the island.
Directions: Take Highway 3 to Olive Branch and turn right on Miller City Road. Drive south one mile and look for the big tourist sign that says "START HERE" at the turnoff for Island Road. Turn left and drive to the parking area for the island trailhead. From here, walk past the gate and along the causeway to the island.
Horseshoe Lake West Side Drive
Passing through the state wildlife area, West Side Drive provides an easy three-mile auto tour with views of the lake from different angles. Near the intersection with Miller City Road, look for the convenient pullout that happens to be near a bald eagle nest to the south.
When I visited last week, I didn't see any eagles near the nest, but I did spot one perched in a tree farther along the road, past the campground.
Directions: From Olive Branch, take Miller City Road south for three miles and turn left on West Side Drive.
Located just below Commerce, Missouri, the Mississippi River flows past Burnham Island, a chunk of land that is separated from the Illinois mainland by Sante Fe Chute. Bald eagles have constructed a conspicuous nest on the island. A break in the trees along the levee (at the intersection of Tankville Road and Levee Road) helps provide a clear view of the nest despite being 1,200 feet away across the chute.
Directions: From Olive Branch, take Miller City Road south for 2.5 miles and turn right on Shasta Road. (Or, if coming from West Side Drive, turn right on Miller City Road and then turn left on Shasta Road.) After a quarter-mile on Shasta Road, turn left on Tankville Road, and then follow this road to the levee. Bear left and then look to your right for the nest.
The access road to Devil's Island Wildlife Management Area near McClure can be a muddy quagmire -- or worse -- but this area of public land provides additional birdwatching opportunities. Unfortunately the old causeway leading to the island proper is impassible except when the Mississippi River is exceptionally low, but it's not necessary to reach the island to see eagles.
During my most recent visit I didn't have any luck, but in previous trips I only had to look straight up to find eagles playing overhead.
Directions: Coming from Cape Girardeau, turn left on Highway 3 and go north to McClure. Drive through McClure and look for an intersection with Bridge Street on the right and Devil's Island Road on the left (the sign showing the street names is posted on the right). Turn left on Devil's Island Road and follow this gravel lane up and over the levee. Continue until the road becomes too muddy, and then explore the area on foot.