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If seeing a bald eagle in the wild is on your bucket list, and you’re in Iowa this winter, you’re in luck! Conservation efforts helped these majestic raptors make an incredible comeback after being threatened. And as their population expands, so do the viewing opportunities. In this article, we’ll share where to see bald eagles in central Iowa, along with viewing tips and lots of fun facts.
How to find bald eagles: Look and listen
You will never forget the first time you see (or hear) a bald eagle. During the winter, you can see them perched in trees near bodies of water and spot them flying overhead. Sometimes when we’re hiking, we get lucky, and their unique call catches our attention!
Bald eagles migrate to Iowa December through March, though some are year-round residents. They’re often near Iowa rivers and lakes during the winter, especially by open water (like below dams).
It’s a thrill to see the eagles glide through the air and swoop down to grab fish from openings in the ice.
What to look for
Adult bald eagles have a broad, 6+ foot wingspan, brown bodies and wings, and a white head and tail. And, they have hooked yellow bills and yellow legs. Juvenile eagles (up to 5 years old) don’t have distinct white heads and tails, but you can still identify them among adults.
- Bald eagles are active during the day, especially early morning and late afternoon.
- Don’t forget to dress in layers, and take your binoculars for a close-up view. (And maybe a thermos of hot cocoa too!).
- Please keep your distance from the eagles and try not to startle them. They’re working hard to find food and conserve energy. Human interference can cause stress, keep them from food, and force them to burn needed energy.
The best places to spot bald eagles in Central Iowa
Bald eagles are usually near open bodies of water in the winter. So, rivers and large lakes are the best places to view them. Below are a few popular places to spot bald eagles in Central Iowa.
Des Moines River/Downtown Des Moines
Downtown Des Moines has a good viewing opportunity along the Des Moines River on the SE 6th St. bridge. Eagles are often between the SE 6th St bridge and the SE 1st St and SE 14th St bridges. Look for them perched in trees in the wooded areas along the river.
Gray’s Lake/Downtown Des Moines
A pair of bald eagles nested near Gray’s Lake in years past. Though that pair seems to have moved on, a walk around Gray’s Lake is a potential viewing opportunity.
Des Moines River: Sycamore Trail South & Birdland Marina
Just north of downtown along the Des Moines River is an excellent place to view the eagles. You could see them near the Sycamore South trailhead (Polk County River Place, 2309 Euclid Ave, Des Moines). And also from Birdland Park on the east side of the river (2100 Saylor Rd, Des Moines).
Head north of Des Moines to Saylorville Lake for more opportunities to see eagles. Sometimes you see them on the icy lake from the Visitor Center or near Sandpiper Recreation Area. But the open water below the dam is the best place for bald eagles to find a meal. So, we recommend the Bob Shetler and Cottonwood Recreation Areas (both are below the dam).
(Sometimes, Polk County Conservation hosts a Bald Eagle viewing at Jester Park Lodge. Check their website for events.)
Yellow Banks Park
Look for bald eagles on the bluffs overlooking the Des Moines River at Yellow Banks Park. The ridge gives you an expansive view, so bring your binoculars!
Red Rock Reservoir
The Red Rock Area is about 40 miles from Des Moines and is known for its sizeable bald eagle population. You’re most likely to see them below the dam, where there’s open water.
Other places to view bald eagles in Iowa
Most bald eagles in Iowa are along the Mississippi River. As a result, it’s common to see hundreds of eagles from the river’s shores. Below are some popular places to see eagles soar over the waters of the mighty Mississippi:
- Quad Cities
Decorah, Iowa, is also a popular place to see them. You might have heard of the Decorah Eagle Cam, which gives us a bird’s-eye view of the activity of the nesting eagles.
Fun Facts on Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
- Wingspan: 6 – 8 feet
- 2½ – 3 feet tall, when perched
- Weigh 8 – 14 lbs.
- Lifespan: up to 30 years.
- Male and female adults have the characteristic white head and tail, though females are often larger.
- Their eyesight is spectacular. Eagles see fish from hundreds of feet above and a rabbit from up to a mile away.
- Bald eagle talons are black, long, and super sharp.
- They mate for life.
- When courting, the male and female intertwine talons and freefall. They release their bind at the very last moment before hitting the ground.
- Females build the nest, and males help gather nesting materials.
- Nests take months to build. They can be up to 7 feet wide and 12 feet deep and weigh over 12 tons.
- The average clutch is two eggs, incubating for around 35 days.
- Their preferred food is fish, though they eat small mammals and scavenge.
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