Saturday, January 15, 2011

Last weekend's eagles, and a digression on graffiti art

Even with the previous week’s low bald eagle count and the inactivity of the few birds we saw, J. wanted to try again. On Saturday the 8th we set out for Starved Rock from Homewood after an extended Caribou visit.

On the way we stopped at a rest area, where J. talked to a woman who told him she was driving from Pennsylvania to Alaska. That’s a long haul through northern Canada. I wonder how long the trip will take at a moderately leisurely pace and how she can afford the time and money, although I am beginning to realize these things are possible for those who can both dream and plan.

We detoured at the Ottawa exit to check out Marcia’s Bed and Breakfast, where you can spend the night in a dressed-up grain bin. We overshot the address and ended up by Hank’s Farm Restaurant, another landmark surrounded by fields. Here J. happily snapped photos of a little flock of domesticated turkeys, a couple of black-faced sheep, and a swan in the water. He needs a pet or a farm; I’m not sure which.

We arrived at around 3:00 p.m.—enough time to freeze in the biting wind. But the cold made this a more productive trip. This time, a dozen bald eagles perched in the favored tree, while at least a dozen others were clustered in a few other trees on the east side of Plum Island. Others appeared, and for most of the afternoon we watched at least one or two soaring around the dam, skimming the water, and making passes at unseen (by us) fish. Once or twice I thought I may have spotted a catch, but I couldn’t be sure. Something excited them enough to ignite a tussle, during which eagles aiming for the same spot (fish) thrust their talons toward each other. They may perch in clusters, but they’re neither social nor collaborative. They’re hungry and competitive, needing to keep their avian engines stoked to stay warm.

Hungry ourselves, after stopping at a spot on Dee Bennett Road for a different perspective of the island in the dimming light, we returned to Ottawa and found Bianchi’s Pizza, where they ring up your payment on an old-fashioned, golden-hued cash register with flat, round mechanical (not mechanical) keys and a crank on the side. Cash only. Those whose memories date back to the 1960s and before can picture these vintage pieces, still shiny and still in working order. Cha-ching!

As there were so many eagles on Saturday, J. wanted to return on Sunday. In Utica, we drove up what in Illinois passes for a hill, which took us along a road with a mix of new and old and large and small houses, some set well back from the road. Tractors were parked in a few of the driveways.

Back at the bottom of the hill in Utica, we found way blocked by a stopped freight train. The closest escape route was marked “NO TRESPASSING.” The train seemed to be short, so we settled in to wait as it started up, advanced a few feet, stopped, started up again, advanced a few more feet, repeat. A worker walked up and down the right of way.

We amused ourselves by discussing the copious amounts of rust and graffiti on the cars in front of us and along the rest of the train that we could see, including a sketch, in just about the right shade of blue, of a half gallon skim milk carton—likely the work of bored teenagers, not gangs. They may even like to imagine their efforts as a traveling art show, passing cars at crossings in big cities and far-off places.

This makes me think that we should try to channel the energy behind what we consider to be acts of vandalism into creating something useful or beautiful. If so many adolescents love to draw, paint, and tag, and to seek attention, then bring arts education back to schools. If retirement communities host art shows, why don’t more schools? Give these kids engaging training in the principles and techniques of art so they can see their own improvement and a space, physical and/or digital, in which to share their creations. They may learn something useful, they would have done something society encourages them to feel good about, and they can get the attention they crave (don’t adults remember those cravings?). Maybe then we could praise these kids for their accomplishments instead of excoriating them for their delinquencies. I”m sure this has been done—why not everywhere? Easy? No. Worthwhile? Yes. Easier than whining and fretting about the future of the world in their hands.

Having escaped Utica, we stopped briefly at the same precarious tilted parking area we’d checked out the day before, this time parking the car at an angle that would have made even a Batman villain dizzy. Two and then four eagles took flight. Even more exciting, we saw a swan take off gracefully from the water. That’s a lot of bird to get airborne. It almost made the eagles look like tiny passerines.

Rumors of the eagle’s increased presence must have gotten out because more people stopped at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, usually with a camera, binoculars, or both. At times two dozen eagles perched in the favored tree, with a few small cluster in satellite trees on the east side. The sun was behind clouds and the air was calm, making it easier to watch the western sky over Starved Rock without being blinded or frozen.

At first they seemed content to stay in the trees, but as the afternoon wore on more and more took flight over the water toward the dam Although most made passes at the river, again I didn’t see any catches. What I found fascinating was the aggressiveness of the juveniles, who were the most persistent in their attempts and the most assertive in their defense of their areas, driving off other juveniles and adults alike. Driven by hunger, they may not be as wise about conserving their energy for the best opportunities as the mature birds. I imagined how difficult it must be to latch onto a fish at the surface of a flowing, ice-cold river.

After an hour and a half or so, and during a break in activity, we crossed to the Starved Rock side to watch the dark eagle shapes against the darkening sky.

We returned to Ottawa, this time following Route 6 instead of I80. This is a dark, quiet country road intersecting flat, treeless fields edged by a sprinkling of lonely houses and outbuildings. It’s hard to conceive how only a couple of miles away arose the cliffs and canyons of Starved Rock along the river and environs. They’re worlds apart.

Our first choice, the Bee Hive diner, was closed, so we settled for Monte’s Riverside Inn on the Fox River, where blocks of ice have jammed the open water. Once again, I thought of the men of the Edmund Fitzgerald, who must have known the ship was sinking and realized with horror that they could not avoid the cold, eternal embrace of the greatest of the Great Lakes.

Photo: Plum Island from below Starved Rock.

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