Saturday, January 22, 2011

Eagles in the snow (Starved Rock State Park)

This weekend for my "tiny twitch" campaign of visiting different counties so as not to grow bored with winter birding, Greenturtle and I went to Starved Rock State Park in LaSalle County to see the bald eagles that congregate around the lock every winter. It's hard to think of this twitch as "tiny," though, because first of all, bald eagles are awesome, and second, the canyons of the park are rather challenging to hike. So our annual January trip feels hefty in both import and exertion.

One of the things I love about bald eagles is that, to me, they represent not only our country but the potential this country has to value the environment. Many people know that, thanks to DDT, the bald eagle's numbers were once dwindling, but now they have made a real comeback. In fact, according to Sheryl de Vore's book, Birding Illinois, in winter Illinois plays host to more bald eagles than any other state except Alaska.

On a more local level, the place where the eagles were roosting, Plum Island, was recently in danger of being sold for development of luxury condos. After a concerted effort, the land was sold instead to the Illinois Audubon Society. And the eagles love it here:

When we arrived, it was quite cold (about 10 degrees), overcast, and snowing -- thus the gloomy aspect of the photos. First we went to the lock to look for eagles, and they were there, many perching in the trees, and others soaring over the water in search of fish. Greenturtle was hoping to see one catch a fish, as we have in previous years, but this year, we just saw them flying. We also saw a pileated woodpecker in the picnic area outside the visitor's center, which was really cool.

To be honest, although I loved seeing the eagles, I probably spent more time scrutinizing the vast numbers of gulls that were also present, because someone reported seeing Iceland gulls and lesser black-backed gulls on Cornell's ebird database, and I really wanted to see them. Alas, all the gulls I saw were of the common ring billed variety, as those seen here in the company of some juvenile bald eagles:

By this point, we were getting quite cold from standing still watching the birds, so it was time to say goodbye to the lock and dam and head for our other destination: the frozen waterfalls of the canyons.

On the way, of course I had to see who was at the feeders.

There were a lot of dark-eyed juncos, house finches, house sparrows, a pair of tufted titmice, some cardinals, a blue jay, a chickadee, starlings and some brown-headed cowbirds. Nothing so exciting as to hold me back from the trails.

Starved Rock is Illinois' most popular state park, receiving a couple of million visitors every year, and is often packed to the point that it's hard just to navigate that trails without tripping over people. It's not surprising, really: the park is close to Chicago, and the scenery is wonderful -- as in, "Are you sure this is in Illinois?" So I can't blame people for flocking here. Still, Greenturtle and I tend to avoid it except in winter, because neither one of us is fond of crowds.

Once we got free of a group of boy scouts, today we had the trails practically to ourselves, the silence punctuated only by the sound of white-breasted nuthatches, chickadees, and a red-bellied woodpecker. Unfortunately, due to a temporary rise in temperature and some ice storms earlier in the week, the trails were very, very slick. Both Greenturtle and I slipped and landed on our @$$ at least once thanks to the ice beneath the snow. Also, on the way out, he lost his hat, which was a bummer due to the sentimental value it had for him: a couple years ago, I crocheted matching hats for us with anarchy symbols, due to our mutual love of punk music (the pattern is in The Happy Hooker: Stitch N Bitch Crochet, in case you're interested.)

We made it to LaSalle canyon in one piece. This is me, creeping along ahead of Greenturtle and hoping that I am not about to plunge to an icy death -- or more likely, since the drop is not that far, an icy plunge to broken bones and expensive optical equipment:

The slick walk, with lots of stairs in between, was worth it, for once again, the frozen waterfall had formed:

This waterfall is not just a static curtain of ice. Fresh droplets drip and jangle around it, forming stalactites and lacy curtains of ice. The color of the ice itself varies, from pearly white as seen from the front, to a lovely translucent blue from behind:

Behind the LaSalle canyon is the Tonty canyon, which also boasts a frozen waterfall, although this one is more static: no new droplets forming, and the colors are white and yellowish, rather than white and blue. It's also higher--for perspective, I am showing the photo with me standing beside it:

By now, the sun had come out, and the temperature warmed by about ten degrees, so on our way back, it felt like the perfect winter day. (Except all the slipping and sliding on the ice. That got old fast!) As it turned out, someone had even found Greenturtle's missing hat and left it for us to find.

Back by the parking lot, Greenturtle went into the visitor center to buy some fudge, taking his camera with him, so the best part of the day went unphotographed. I stopped at the feeders again, seeing the same birds as before, plus a downy woodpecker and a life bird--pine siskin! The perfect end to the day!


  1. So glad that Larry got his hat back! And you got a life bird, too. I like pine siskins, but haven't had a chance to get to know them yet. Wish I could have seen the eagles. Could you hear them, too? Except for the slipping and sliding, it sounds like a perfect day. Mom

  2. How amazing. I've never seen so many eagles. I used to live on Big Lake Manistique in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and we used to get 2 or 3 eagles at a time. They are such an amazing bird. Thank you so much for sharing these pictures.

  3. Wow! This is amazing. It's ALMOST worth it to go outside in this weather. Robyn and I haven't ever been to Starved Rock, this makes us want to go :)