Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The flight of the eagles

On February 27, J. and I paid our final call on the bald eagles of the Starved Rock area. First, though, we detoured for a few minutes to the Nodding Onion, a restaurant in a tiny yellow house in Utica that J. wanted to check out while I waited. It sounded like a place to add to the growing list.

Our foray to Buffalo Rock State Park took a little longer. On the way, just before we reached the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, one of us spotted a flock of large birds grazing in a roadside field. After looking at them with and without binoculars, I’d bet that they were thin wild turkeys (not as chunky as this flock). J. turned the car around to get on their side of the road for a photo opportunity, but even though we returned within five or ten minutes, the flock had begun to move away and was spreading out into a narrow stand of trees between the field they had been grazing and the next. J., who has not seen wild turkeys, never got a good look at them or a shot at taking a photo. It’s almost like the turkeys are in cahoots with the eagles, determined to deny J. his National Geographic moment. Earlier I’d seen a hawk in a tree along the road, but it wasn’t going to hang around long enough to pose, either. This area must be birders’ heaven during migration.

To a native Chicagoan, the approach to Buffalo Rock State Park must appear to be alien. The side of the road, flat where the turkeys had been grazing and by the visitor center and the nearby marina beyond it, turns into sheer bluffs that, depending on your personality, could make you feel protected or claustrophobic (well, if they were on both sides). It occurred to me that in all the landscape in this area I had not spotted an example of the sign so familiar to me from my childhood visits to Pennsylvania—”Falling Rock” (yes, I used to think an awful lot of towns in Pennsylvania were named Falling Rock). This doesn’t bother me as I consider these signs to be as useful as the signs that are so popular during the winter in downtown Chicago—”Watch for falling ice.” Watch with what? The second pair of eyes on the top of my head? Such a thing would certainly make bald eagle watching easier.

Roadside bluffs, which call to mind places in New York and Pennsylvania, are lovely enough, but these sported gorgeous icicle-waterfall beards of opaque white. A week of warmer weather later, I wonder what they look like and how they formed.

Buffalo Rock also runs along the Illinois. Where we we parked we could choose from a couple of trails, probably both icy. The one J. chose, with an overlook deck along the way, was too much for me; I slid on every one of the uneven steps down that I tried. He went ahead, probably having given up on me. I had a trick up my sleeve, or rather in my bag—the handy YakTrax from the Starved Rock information center gift shop. After having looked at the box at home, this time I put them on the correct way, noticing for the first time with some chagrin that they are imprinted with “heel” and “toe” in the appropriate places in English and French, and that they’re much easier to put on quickly when they’re facing the right way. Instant flashbacks to my poor spatial relations scores in grammar school and the apologetic way in which the school counselor had told me not to feel too badly because girls don’t perform as well on this test as boys do.

What a difference the YakTrax made on the slick, slightly soft ice. Instead of sliding across the surface, my feet bit down into the ice/snow and stayed stable, although for me it’s always tricky to walk down uneven steps where the back edge is higher than the front. My clumsiness is probably three quarters psychological, but it effectively keeps me tentative and afraid of slipping and falling, especially since I fell on my face and teeth in August 2008 right outside the back door to the Flamingo.

The sky had cleared some from the morning, so the light was cheerier than it had been earlier. Across from this overlook lies an island, much larger than Plum Island. Once in a while we could see a large bird perched in one of the trees, but it was clearly not an adult bald eagle. We think they were eagles; if so, they were mostly the younger ones. We also observed flocks of birds that seemed to have some kind of bluish coloring, but l don’t know what they were. I kept thinking they were pigeons, which doesn’t seem right, although I suppose this would be good ground for the rock dove.

J. was ready to leave when I spotted an enormous bird flying away across the water. I soon lost it, possibly on shore or around a bend, and J. never saw it. I’d guess it was a great blue heron, although later at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center someone mentioned having seen cranes. I’m inclined to think heron, as I wouldn’t know a crane in flight.

He remained a little undecided about leaving, but just then a few people showed up. And a few more. And more. And yet more. They didn’t seem to stop coming, which made our timing to leave seem even more propitious. Of course by now the steps were like the sidewalks from Union Station at rush hour—a solid flow of one-way traffic in human flesh that allowed little leeway for getting through. Finally, the last of them stepped onto the deck. I noted, with more chagrin, that most or probably all of them—young, middle-aged, older—had made it down the steps without YakTrax or similar aids. Sigh. As we walked up, we eyed the source of the influx—Ranger and Rita, Starved Rock Lodge’s trolley-style buses.

Once up the steps, I may have used the bathroom, and J. had to lovingly tuck away his camera and accessories, but although we didn’t linger, we noticed that Ranger and Rita were only minutes behind us—their occupants must have spent only 15 to 20 minutes in the park, one of the disadvantages of being tied to a group. Because J. drove slowly to try to capture some views of the bluffs with his digital camera, the two trolleys were soon right on our tail. It didn’t help that we overshot the visitor center from that direction and ended up back at the main road. I wonder if a quarter of the mileage on any given vehicle is from bad navigation, wrong turns, overshooting turnoffs, and the like. I wouldn’t be surprised.

After getting past all these distractions, we arrived at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, probably around 2:30 p.m. or so. From our vantage point, we could see only two adult eagles in the trees on Plum Island. Except for the ubiquitous gulls, the bickering Canada geese, and perhaps an occasional immature eagle, that appeared to be it for the immediate area. The rest have moved on to their breeding grounds. That didn’t stop J. and a few other photogs from setting up shop to catch whatever action there would be. Poor J. wanted every distant gull to be an eagle on the wing.

This week two or three small boats plied the river, perhaps also on the lookout for eagles. I spent more time outdoors and saw less, although it’s energizing just to feel like I’ve stepped into a different place, where even boats with outboard motors could be re-imagined as canoes.

Knowing that we weren’t returning this season, we lingered even longer than last week, long enough for two eagles—at least one from the tree—to take flight, in fact, to engage in what to my uninformed eye appeared to be part of their ritual pair-bonding/mating flight. As a wonder, J. still had his tripod and lens set up, so he was able to capture parts of it, some more clearly than others. For the handful of us left, it was the highlight of the afternoon, worth the cold and the wait. It was so exciting that another fellow beckoned me over to check out his digital photos. Great moments are meant to be shared, even with strangers.

Late in the afternoon, after most of the casual tourists had left, a barge appeared down river, moving so slowly that I thought it would take an hour to reach the lock. It may have been stopped, because soon it picked up speed, and I was surprised to see it approaching the lock a few minutes later. I watched the action from ground level, where a man drove a cart back and forth to a little house, presumably to operate the lock. Men in safety vests standing on the rusting barge waved to the eagle watchers above, while those in the pilot house of the tug focused on steering and stopping. When the barge and tug were safely tucked in, the gates at my end of the lock slowly closed. After a few minutes of limbo, water began gushing behind the tug as it poured into the lock. It took a few more minutes for the water level to rise visibly—I noticed that I was seeing more rungs of a ladder hung on the side of the tug. I didn’t time the entire operation, but would guess it took 15 to 20 minutes, perhaps a bit longer. After the barge and tug had moved out of the lock, the water stayed at the higher level. I speculated that it would be left there in case the next transport came from the other direction.

Finally, J. was asked to leave, and so to the Lodge for dinner, where the dining room staff recognized us, as did the gift shop cashier. She told us that her winter cold was hanging on. J. spent the entire trip to Chicago sniffling and blowing his nose, and by Wednesday I was sick, too—the second time since January 25.

I hope our colds move on more rapidly than the eagles and don’t return any sooner.

Here’s a story about the shortage of bald eagles at Starved Rock this year.

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