Eagle Watch at Starved Rock

January 24, 2010

A bald eagle winters at Starved Rock

Once again the bald eagles are wintering at Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Illinois. They perch high on the treetops of Plum Island, next to the dam that keeps the river from freezing and where the fish are easy pickings. This year the eagle numbers are low. That’s because the gizzard chad crashed. Supposedly, it’s a natural and cyclical occurrence, but one that sent the iconic birds elsewhere in search of their preferred cuisine.

Last year 102 eagles were sighted at Starved Rock. We were lucky to spot a handful. “Next year, you never know–it all depends on how the fish bounce back,” said Ranger Bob Petruney of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center.

If you’ve never seen one, bald eagles are not bald. Early European explorers named them using an Old English word, “balde,” which means white–a reference to their heads and tails. A few more eagle facts:

* Bald eagles are all-brown until they are 4 or 5 years old; then they get the white plumage.

* Illinois has the largest winter population of bald eagles outside Alaska.

* Bald eagles weigh about the same as a cat, but they stand 3 feet tall and have wingspans up to 8 feet.

We took off on foot in search of eagles and other snowy wonders. The park is known for sandstone bluffs, 18 canyons and 13 miles of hilly trails. The first day we hiked up and down and up to the top of Wildcat Canyon, where ice climbers were scaling a frozen waterfall. Then we meandered down to the Illinois River and up to Lovers Leap. That’s where we saw 5 eagles–2 pairs of adults and a juvenile.

The next morning we joined a hiking club made up of guests at the historic Starved Rock Lodge, where we stayed, and local residents. It was founded by activities director Edna Daugherty, and the group meets every Thursday, year-round. This day’s destination was St. Louis Canyon and the frozen waterfall there. Arnie and I thought we were hike-worthy, but soon found ourselves sliding along the steep paths. Edna handed me her walking stick. Ron loaned Arnie his walking stick and YakTrax, which are like tire chains for your feet. They worked out well, and the landscape was magnificently stark and still.

I wore cute waterproof boots by White Mountain. They are shiny black on the foot part and quilted on the top part. I was going to show you a picture, but decided you’d rather see an eagle. So here’s a picture of my souvenir from the gift shop.