WARNING. As I sit down to write this, it dawns on me it may become lengthy. So you might want to re-fill that large mug of coffee now before you begin. Or, better yet, keep a full coffee pot at arm’s length.
Prey. No, I didn’t misspell it. It’s Sunday. A day of worship. You might think I meant to say, “Pray for us.” But “prey” is the word I intended. Read on.
A week ago my cousin, Thelma, and I were sipping a second cup of coffee at the arboretum snack shop watching the frozen scenery go by outside the floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall windows. As The Hawk blew the previous night’s snow off of the roof and billows of snowflakes gleamed in the bright sunlight, they gave the effect that we were under water looking up at its wavy surface. Several children at a nearby table were enchanted by the snow scene as well and couldn’t contain their glee. I mentioned to Thelma that I had a drive to Starved Rock State Park planned for the following weekend to Eagle watch. (Eagles are raptors, birds of prey – get the connection now?) Thelma said she wouldn’t mind coming along on the trip as she had been to Starved Rock many times, but never knew about the Eagle watching. I looked forward to having her company.
Now, I want to set the story straight before I go on. My cousin’s name is not Thelma. Nor, for that matter, is my name Louise. I just thought it would be funny to refer to ourselves as Thelma and Louise today as if we were taking off across country to challenge our wildest dreams. She must have agreed, because she giggled as I kept calling her Thelma throughout the day. I did notice, however, she frequently checked to make sure her seat belt was secure when we were driving. Hum-m-m. I guess she remembered how that movie ended.
I drove up to Thelma’s place at the appointed 8:00 a.m. and she was ready to go. Being on time runs in the family. “Got that seat belt buckled tightly, Thelma? Okay! Let’s take off for some wild bird watching!”
The weather forecast was for the sun to burn off the morning fog and the temperatures to rise into the mid-forties. We brought along the requisite cameras, binoculars and warm hiking clothes. As we left the confines of Chicago’s far west suburban city sprawl, the farms on two-lane Illinois Route 71 gradually appeared. Traffic was light. We discovered the fog that seemed to begin lifting in the suburbs we left behind us was thickening and the farm fields became coated with a lovely white frost as we drove toward Ottawa, Illinois.
An hour and a half later we arrived at the Illinois River Lock and Dam after driving through the nearby town of Utica. The Visitor Center is not only a great place to see how the lock and dam system works on the wide river, but also an inviting place for history buffs and wild bird watchers. It’s home to very complete displays depicting the native inhabitants of the area and early explorers along with information about navigation on the river. Of special interest to bird watchers are the indoor and outdoor observation decks with spotting scopes trained on the tree the Bald Eagles favor just a short distance away on Plum Island. Serious nature photographers are able to comfortably set up their equipment.
Oh – an important side note here. Today the attendant at the lock and dam told us they had 6,000 visitors to the Starved Rock Annual Eagle Watch which took place last weekend! I had my calendar marked to make sure to avoid the crowds and not venture anywhere near.
Because the winter has been a very warm one, there were not as many Eagles today as I spied last winter when the river was frozen. The birds make their way south from Minnesota, Wisconsin and the north-west corner of Illinois along the Mississippi to fish in the water that remains open in winter due to the motion caused by the lock and dam system. Nevertheless, seeing one Bald Eagle in the wild is reason enough to make the trip. We were not disappointed. There were several Eagles taking turns soaring above the river and bluffs. The juveniles were obvious by their brown coloring as they do not develop their distinctive white head and tail feathers until they are 4-5 years old.
We spent an hour and a half mesmerized by the Bald Eagles. I took some pictures even knowing the little point-and-shoot would not do them justice. The foggy day didn’t help. But hey, if you get out your magnifying glass, you can tell the little pin-head sized white dots are an Eagle’s head and tail, can’t you? I promise to start shopping for a more appropriate-to-the-task camera soon.
From the lock and dam visitor center we crossed the Illinois River and entered Starved Rock State Park. The Legend of Starved Rock taken from a sign along the trail, “It is said that a band of Illinois Indians fled to the top of this rock for protection and were stranded here by Potawatomi and Fox Indians, who were seeking revenge because the Illinois had killed their leader, Chief Pontiac. Unable to fight back successfully or to escape, the Illinois eventually starved to death.”
We spent time, with Thelma in the lead, trekking along trails in the canyons and up to the top of the bluffs along the river for spectacular views. No matter how many times one visits, it’s always amazing to see how the flat farmlands quickly give way to hills and high bluffs over the river. We were able to watch the Eagles in flight over the river and look back at the lock and dam observing boats passing through and water churning. There were photographers with tripods and telephoto lenses at perches along the bluff.
Having seen as much as we were going to see for one day, we headed to the lodge and enjoyed the roaring fireplace for a short while before entering the bar atop the bluff at the lodge for a casual meal. And wouldn’t you know it….right on cue as we were finishing our meal…the sun broke through what remained of the fog and high clouds and it became a suddenly picture perfect day. But, Thelma and I knew we had to turn back home anyway.
We drove back leaving the quaint river towns of Utica and Ottawa behind us as we returned to life as we know it. I delivered Thelma to her doorstep an hour before Super Bowl kickoff, stopped at the grocery to pick up an ice cream treat and arrived home also in time for kickoff.
And so, now that you know the ropes and where to spy Bald Eagles amid beautiful scenery not so far from home, the birds of prey await your visit!