Monday, January 24, 2011

Eagle Watch Weekend at Starved Rock

We arrived at around 10:45 a.m. on Saturday at Starved Rock Lodge—just in time to get tickets for the 4:00 p.m. World Bird Sanctuary program. The great hall was packed, and the tickets for the three earlier programs had already been claimed. My gut feeling that we needed to arrive early proved to be correct for a change.

We spent some time checking out the exhibitors, from Audubon to the Prairie Rivers Network, which J. joined. I spent most of the time speaking with a representative of the Wildlife Prairie State Park near Peoria, which I had visited in the early 1990s as a Lincoln Park Zoo docent. The female black bear, whose claws had been extracted by a private "owner," is still there, with an offspring and a different male. The male we had seen died from intestinal blockage after ingesting a ball that a thoughtless visitor had thrown into the exhibit. This ignorant person probably never knew the consequences of his or her action. I wonder quite a bit about this kind of things—how often it happens that we do something seemingly harmless that results in grave consequences, to which we remain forever oblivious.

After some trouble finding the woman selling rides on the trolley, we took "Rita" to the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, where I could almost swear Audubon had stocked the water with fish. More likely, the eagles were especially hungry after a windy, frigid Friday, with a wind chill factor of nearly minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. When we arrived in the early afternoon, more than a dozen were flying over the water, while another two dozen plus looked on from the trees. This frenzy of activity lasted for a long time, until shortly before we left at around 3:00 p.m. The crowds seemed thrilled, although I didn't observe any catches and wonder sometimes how those birds survive.

We made it back to the lodge in time to get middle center seats for the World Bird Sanctuary program, which featured a Harris hawk, bateleur eagle, Eurasian eagle owl, eastern screech owl, American kestrel, barn owl, and bald eagle. The handlers flew the Harris hawk and eagle owl, and maybe one other, fist to fist. Even while snapping photos incessantly, J. was among those who ducked every time the birds made a pass above us, as though (1) the bird might not see us and hit us and (2) the bird's touch with its flight feathers might cause pain and suffering. The eagle owl swooped especially close—and looked especially soft. As long as I didn't have a toupee to get knocked off, I wasn't about to duck.

At the end, they brought out a raven to collect to donations. If you handed him $5 or more, he "billed" you a Wild Bird Sanctuary medallion. His large bill and quick, aggressive movements made several people, including the children, withdraw their vulnerable hands quickly as he snatched the money, again more an instinctive reaction than a rational fear. I was amused to note that he'd been trained to show his handler the money before he dropped it into the box so she would know whether to give him a medallion to present to the giver. Teamwork!

This time, we took the canyon road, Illinois 71, to Ottawa. This way winds along the Illinois River and Starved Rock canyons, and we saw only a few cars in the darkness for the next several miles. And so to Bianchi's again for pizza and pop—an easier meal than fish from cold water.

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