Saturday, January 28, J. and I set out for the first day of Eagle Watch Weekend at Starved Rock State Park. Last year, we’d seen dozens of bald eagles from the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, but this winter remains unusually warm. (As I write this, it’s 42 degrees Fahrenheit; last year on February 1 northern Illinois and Indiana were bracing for the 20 or more inches of snow that would shut down most of Chicago the next day).
With the morning temperatures at just about freezing, the light snow that had fallen the night before made driving and walking hazardous, but it was expected to melt as the day warmed. With the river wide open, there’s no reason for the eagles to cluster on Plum Island near the dam — so they don’t.
After picking up tickets for the World Bird Sanctuary program at noon, we caught the trolley to the Visitor Center. As we expected, only a few birds were perched on Plum Island and the opposite shore. At one point, I saw three in flight, but soon lost even them against the bright sky and dark trees.
At last a small drama began. Two of the eagle-eyed raptors spotted a fish, and one captured the prize. That’s when the battle began, as the second hungry bird harassed its successful competitor, who, despite being buffeted and flipped, clung to its meal throughout the tumbling chase. As Benjamin Franklin famously noted as one of his several objections to the bald eagle as the emblem of the new United States:
For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
Despite the relatively balmy weather, the wind off the river was brisk, and I was glad I’d bundled up. I often wonder how the hungry eagles along the river perceive the chill and if they get weary of it, despite their adaptations.
We returned in time for a quick snack at the Lodge’s café, then headed to the World Bird Sanctuary program. For me, the highlight was the snowy owl, who flew over my head two or three times. The first time, she banged my glasses with her jesses. On her next flight, she brushed my hair with a wing. My neighbor, who found the whole experience thrilling, exclaimed, “She likes you!” The white-necked raven continued their tradition of rewarding $5 or greater donations with a medallion, beaked over to you. When someone handed him a rare $20, however, he was reluctant to drop it into the bin, and it took his handler several persuasive words to get him to relinquish his prize.
Afterward, we returned to the Visitor Center, but there were still just a few eagles, which mostly stayed put. At one-point, a loaded low-sided boat appeared near the opposite shore, and all I could think was how horrible it would be to fall out into that cold, cold water. I could almost feel it closing over me. Clearly, I’ve been spending too much time reading The Greenlanders.
Our next and final planned event was the Illinois Raptor Center program at 4 p.m. The birds, including a snowy owl and bald and golden eagles, had had a long day and were a little stressed, but the speaker was in fine form. While explaining what differentiates raptors from other predatory birds, he mentioned the great blue heron and how dangerous they are to handle — the only birds, he said, for which they don safety gear. As he held up a great blue heron skull with its long bill, he said, “Think of this as spring-loaded scissors with a brain.”
With a few good photos and a few such tidbits embedded in our brains, we headed back to Chicago, where snowy owls have been spotted during this year of the snowy owl irruption.