Friday, February 26, 2010

Fishing for eagles

Today there are treatments for almost anything. We’ve advanced from the standard alcohol addiction and/or drug addiction to Internet addiction and sex addiction—and, of course, Internet sex addiction. Has any entrepreneurial spirit come up with a way to address eagle addiction?

J.’s new-found interest in the bald eagles of Plum Island led him to invest in a more powerful lens and a tripod to support it. For the third consecutive Saturday, we hit I-80 southwest bound for the Starved Rock State Park area.

This time, however, we turned left at the road before the bridge over the mighty Illinois toward the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, from where you can watch the eagles from indoors or out. The center is next to the Starved Rock Lock and Dam, so if any barges or tugs happen to come through, you’d be on top of the action. Last week we’d watched from Starved Rock on the opposite shore as an enormous barge-train crept by at what seemed to be a painfully slow speed. This week, of course, now that we were in a perfect position to view the operation of the lock, the only sign of human life on the river was a rowboat with an outboard motor that appeared mid-afternoon, steering from below Plum Island to the base of Starved Rock, then back down river. I did learn that the “pretty red crane” hovering near the lock is from a Maryland construction site and has been reconfigured to heft a mere 360 tons. It sits there, pining for the opportunity to be of service again.

Inside the building visitors find an eclectic mix of education and artifacts related to river transport and area wildlife. A pilot house dominates the center, while the perimeter walls and cases tend to showcase animals, including stuffed birds and even a river otter, as well as beaver pelts and a deer skin. One case highlights the paraphernalia of the French-Indian fur-trading days—all great stuff. You can even buy amazing photos of the bald eagles, including a roosting eagle studiously ignoring an invading squirrel and two eagles squabbling mid-flight over a fish (which seems to be a favorite pastime). You can head outdoors from either the first or second floor, where a deck wraps around the river side of the building.

From this northern shore, the roosting eagles seemed more back lit as seen through my binoculars. J. got to work right away setting up the camera and tripod, soon exchanging the 300 mm lens for the new 500 mm. He moved around and clicked away happily, although the perched eagles seemed the most game for some flying and fishing action when he was tied up changing film. There’s nothing like hearing, “Oooh! Look at that!” just as you’ve taken out the used film and are putting in the fresh film.

The disadvantage of the visitor center is that you get no walking or climbing exercise, and the view, being lower, is not as sweeping. On the positive side, you can go indoors to warm up and use the bathroom if necessary (yes, several times), and you can sit when you get tired or achy from standing (yes, several times). While J. snapped away for hours, I could sit and wait in comfort without freezing.

From the lock side, you enjoy a great view of Starved Rock and its neighbor, Lovers Leap. Looking at these sandstone bluffs along the river across the steel and mechanisms of the lock, I wondered again how these wonders appeared to the area’s first human inhabitants in their unspoiled state and how man, with his incremental alterations of the landscape over thousands of years, has become so inured to his effects that the lock and dam are accepted as a necessary part of the river. With enough effort, I can imagine looking across the unsullied water at the opposite shore, but I can’t imagine away all the remnants of the Rust Belt I see from on board Amtrak from Chicago to Altoona, ranging from abandoned tools and bridges to entire blocks of blight. And so much of it is so we can earn money to buy things we used to know how to raise or make ourselves, or things we don’t need but that marketing and peer pressure and envy have convinced us that we have to to have. What vital cargo was last week’s ponderous barge-train hauling, anyway?

Indefatigably, J. continued to shoot photos while I rested inside. After 3 o’clock, when the center mysteriously emptied out, I tried its popular Swarovski telescope, which affords an amazing view. The huge eagle everyone reported seeing at the top in the middle proved to be a pair. I could see the color of their eyes and feet, not visible even through my binoculars. Even better, they weren’t just stationary lumps in the trees, as they appear to be at a distance. Through the telescope I could see that they move their heads nearly constantly, ever vigilant for a glimpse of a fish. I could be mistaken, but it appeared the pair coordinated their relative positions and movements to cover as wide an angle as possible. I suspect they look for more than fish. With their vision, they should be able to spot unsuspecting rabbits and squirrels on the mainland. (I’ve seen video of a nesting bald eagle contentedly plucking out and swallowing a rabbit’s eye, a sight that, like Scotland, is not for the squeamish.) If only J. could take photos with the closeness and clarity of the telescopic view!

After watching a couple of pre- or young teen girls spend an inordinate amount of time and energy playing in the pilot house (on in particular attached herself to the quaint corded phone, as girls will), I checked out the stuffed bird wall display. I’d already gotten on the wrong side of the representative from the Army Corps of Engineers when he had asked if I had any questions, and I’d too quickly answered, “No.” With the obvious exception of the tundra swan, all of the specimens on the wall were raptors—red-tailed hawk—sharp-shinned hawk—great horned owl—barred owl—American kestrel—nighthawk—Nighthawk? Now I had a question: “Who was the wise guy who put the nighthawk in with the raptors?” He seemed taken aback and answered cryptically, “Broken wing.” This didn’t quite answer my question, but the taxidermist had preserved this feature—the nighthawk’s left wing was pinned at an awkward, unnatural angle. Huffily, I thought, he pointed out the swan, as well as the turkey on top of a case against another wall and noted that they were all from the Starved Rock area. Still, I wonder how many people who see the nighthawk and think it’s at home with the raptors. After all these years away from the zoo, I continue to feel the urge to educate. If the Army Corps representative wouldn’t let me have my little joke, someone was going to have to learn all about nighthawks and nightjars. That someone was poor J., who had finally come in after several hours in the cold. The moment he did, the eagles, which had been quiet for some time, suddenly remembered how to fly.

After a peek through the telescope and my lecture about the unfortunately placed nighthawk, we watched the Canada geese, which we hadn’t seen much of previously. A brazen pair landed in the water of the lock, which set off a member of the pair on the land above it. The irate goose flew after first one and then the other of the pair in the water, driving each to the far end. After they were safely hemmed in, the other goose on land flew down to its mate, as though to say, “Let me at them! I’ll show them!”

These geese never shut up. The flock and bands from it came and went the entire afternoon with a constant stream of quacks, grunts, or however you wish to describe their unmistakable—and ceaseless—chatter.

We left a little after 4:30 p.m. with the idea of stopping at Matthiessen State Park. On the road from the visitor center, along which we might see eagles, I’d read, J. spotted an owl perched on a road sign. I missed it. He pulled over, retrieved his camera, and headed toward the sign only to see the owl fly off as another car approached.

On the road to Matthiessen, he noted an indoor amusement park, which struck him given the wealth of natural attractions. I’d been thinking earlier, and the week before, about the sense of boredom that seems to have plagued the rural and small-town teenager since time began. The grass is always greener . . . in the big city . . . where teenagers are equally gifted at finding ways to be bored.

I didn’t explore Matthiessen with J. The impingement syndrome in my left shoulder was especially painful (hence the single-handed binoculars hold), plus I felt like I could use a nap; I hadn’t slept much the night before because of the pain.

Curious about the chipotle meatloaf I keep ordering at Starved Rock Lodge, J. finally asked for the same and seemed to like it. After that, I dozed off and on in the car for the next few hours. I felt almost sick with lack of sleep. And sleeping in a sitting position took the pressure off my shoulder, which was a mercy. Hallelujah.

And now one more time . . .


  1. bohzo (Hello) Slywy

    I love this article, the Bald Eagle is such a great creature. I watch them all the time, they have them near lower Michigan.

    Don't feel so lonely, many people live a life similar to yours I bet. Life is not full of excitement very often.

    I like your cat, I have a Siamese, he is very old and he has really been a good pal to me.

    Have a great day. You should register your blog with myblog log, that is a busier place than blogger. They are on twitter and have 10,000 members on the twitter account.


  2. bohzo (bonjour),

    I'll have one more eagle journey to post, with the best photos yet. They seem to have moved north now, so my friend and I didn't go this weekend.

    I don't worry about life being exciting—too much an introvert. Just would like to let go of worry.

    Hodge is a psychotic cat who is at least not quite as bad as when I first got him. He gets the orange "WILL BITE" sticker at the veterinarian's. Should have one at home, too. Siamese are great cats, but is yours as chatty as some? And as loud? :)

    I am on mybloglog; I just don't use it very often. I'm on a lot of sites I just never get around to . . .

    I've been reading your blog. Still shaking my head over the person not liking the Indian news in Missoula. How sad.