Looking for Bald Eagles

A bald eagle flies across Horseshoe Lake near the causeway leading to the island.
James Baughn - jbaughn@semissourian.com

Southeastern Mo. and Ill. provide a plethora of options for spotting these feathered friends

Winter often brings dreadful weather in the form of ice storms, smothering fog and brutal cold. When the weather does cooperate, however, this is the best time of year to dust off the binoculars and go searching for bald eagles.

With the leaves off the trees, the distinctive white heads and yellow beaks of these raptors are relatively easy to spot from a distance. Eagles like to perch in tall trees near the edge of open water, providing the birds with a commanding view of their prey below.

A pair of bald eagles sit on top of their nest overlooking West Side Drive at Horseshoe Lake.
James Baughn - jbaughn@semissourian.com

Thanks to their growing population numbers, bald eagles can be found all around the region. One of the more reliable viewing spots is Horseshoe Lake State Fish & Wildlife Area near Olive Branch, Illinois. It's a short 20-mile drive from Cape Girardeau.

The best access to the wildlife area is West Side Drive, a scenic road that follows the edge of Horseshoe Lake. Near the intersection with Miller City Road, the drive follows a short causeway across the lake. To the south, a large bald eagle nest is visible. To the north, a short boardwalk provides an up-close look at the lake.

West Side Drive continues past a campground. Keep your eyes peeled for breaks in the trees, providing clear views of the lakes. You never know when you'll spot a bald eagle perched somewhere. If you're really lucky, you might even get buzzed by one.

In the middle of Horseshoe Lake is a large island that is an excellent spot for viewing migratory geese (and eagles, too). The island features a loop trail for hikers and bicyclists. It's connected to the mainland by a long causeway that can be reached from Miller City Road (look for the big sign that says "Start here"). However, note that the causeway and trail are sometimes closed to public access.

The wildlife area includes other scenic drives, including East Side Drive, Promised Land Road and Singing Bridge Road. I haven't had as much luck spotting eagles along these roads, however.

Driving directions

From Cape Girardeau, take Highway 146 to Highway 3 and then turn right. Follow Highway 3 past Thebes and on to Olive Branch. In the middle of Olive Branch, turn right on Miller City Road. Follow this road and look for the signs for the wildlife area on the left.

Other Eagle Watching Hotspots in the Region:

Tankville Road, near Olive Branch, Ill.:

A conspicuous eagle nest can be seen on an island in the Mississippi River two miles west of Horseshoe Lake. From Miller City Road south of Olive Branch, take Shasta Road west to the levee, and then turn left (south). Where the levee intersects Tankville Road, look west through a clearing in the trees to see the nest.

Highway 3 at Thebes, Ill.:

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. You might spot bald eagles perched in the trees along the road.

Union County State Fish & Wildlife Area, near Ware, Ill.:

A drive through the Union County refuge almost always reveals wildlife of some kind: eagles, geese, other birds or deer. The refuge drive provides a convenient scenic byway for avoiding the heavy traffic on Highway 3 and 146.

Kaskaskia Lock and Dam, near Ellis Grove, Ill.:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property surrounding the Kaskaskia Lock and Dam provides access for eagle watching along both the Kaskaskia and Mississippi rivers. Take Highway 3 north from Chester to Ellis Grove, turn left on Roots Road and follow the signs.

Trail of Tears State Park, north of Cape Girardeau, Mo.:

The overlook at Trail of Tears State Park provides a spectacular view of the Mississippi River, with the chance to see bald eagles hanging out around the bluffs.

Mingo National Wildlife Refuge near Puxico, Mo.:

This large wildlife refuge is well-known for its eagle watching. The adjacent Duck Creek Conservation Area is also worth checking out. It’s not unusual to see eagles in the trees along Highway 51.

Robert G. Delaney Lake Conservation Area, northwest of Charleston, Mo.:

Featuring a 102-acre lake surrounded by trees, this is just the kind of place that bald eagles love.