Bald Eagles at Swan Lake

Driving north to find snow geese, which had eluded me this autumn, I headed to Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, in north-central Missouri, this morning.  While most of the refuge is closed to the public through much of the fall and winter, significant observations are often made from its periphery and access to its northwest corner is maintained throughout the year.  My journey was immediately rewarded by several flocks of snow geese that meandered above the north edge of the refuge but it would be bald eagles that provided the highlight of this visit.

Entering the refuge along the west side of Swan Lake, I observed 60 bald eagles roosting in trees along the lake's north shore; another 20 circled overhead and additional groups could be seen in the distance, soaring above the refuge.  I counted at least 100 bald eagles within ten minutes of entering the preserve, the largest concentration that I have observed in my 35 years of birding.

In fact, Missouri hosts one of the largest populations of wintering bald eagles in the lower 48 States; according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, more that 2600 wintered in the State last year.  Though a significant number now breed in Missouri, the annual population peaks from mid December to early March as lakes freeze across Canada and these fish-loving raptors move to warmer climes.  In Missouri, bald eagles are best observed along the Missouri and Mississippi River Valleys but are also common at Swan Lake NWR, on Mark Twain Lake in northeast Missouri and on the "Great Lakes" of southwest Missouri; to date (per the MDNR), the largest number observed at any given location is 400 at Squaw Creek NWR, on the Missouri River floodplain, north of St. Joseph.