I find it so exciting when I wake up early on a Saturday knowing that something out of my usual routine waits for me. On this particularly chilly morning in February, I was going to Starved Rock State Park in Utica, IL. I had been there before, but only in the summer when it is jam packed with visitors. And by “jam packed”, I mean unbelievably so for such a small park. Over Memorial Day 2016, the park hosted about 90,000 visitors over a 3-day period. In 2016, 2.7 million visitors flooded this small state park, and that is an increase over 2015! It is hard to believe that this small park in Central Illinois plays host to such massive crowds.
I didn’t anticipate fighting the crowds on this cold, clear day; we were visiting the park hoping to get a glimpse of the bald eagles that migrate to Starved Rock when rivers further up north have frozen, in search of food between December and March of each year. Only those who really like eagles, the cold, or both visit the park at this time of year.
After a hearty breakfast, and packing a post-bird watching snack of hot chocolate and Girl Scout Cookies, we set out. Even before we left I was looking forward to our snack. I had gotten a new Vinnebago canteen and I was eager to see if it really did keep hot liquids hot for up to 12 hours. It does! The water could’ve come directly from the kettle, even five hours later.
Traffic that early, in the middle of winter was negligible, so the 90-minute drive was easy. When we arrived, we got parking in front of the Visitors Center, which wouldn’t have been possible at other times of the year. On that winter morning, the park was nearly deserted and ours was one of very few cars in the lot.
We joined other bird watchers, and started looking for eagles around the dam and in the surrounding tree lines. The eagles weren’t the only ones looking for food. They were competing with geese and seagulls. I identified the eagles by their smooth flight pattern. They would take off; soar through the air, gently gliding down close to the water. Due to the unusually warm January, the eagles we saw were permanent park residents, not migratory.
At our second lookout point, a small tour group, led by a park ranger caught up with us. She gladly included us her in group as she related the history of the bald eagle, including its miraculous comeback from the brink of extinction. Many of the eagles that are permanent residents nest within a 30 -50 mile radius of the park. I had heard that eagles have hollow bones and typically weigh between 10 – 14 pounds. What I didn’t know is that they mate for life and that their nests can be up to 10’ across and weigh up to two tons. Amazing.
Starved Rock is also home to another bird, the turkey vulture, which from a distance can be mistaken for a bald eagle. Much to my surprise, the park guide said that this was her favorite bird, that she likes it almost more than the bald eagle. She asked us if we wanted to hear something gross. Responding to our enthusiastic nods, she told us about the turkey vulture’s defense mechanism, projectile vomit. Whenever an enemy is within range, it vomits its attacker, momentarily blinding the predator allowing the turkey vulture to make a hasty escape. So gross, and ingenious!
After parting ways with her group, we continued on to a higher view point, hoping to get a closer glimpse of an eagle along the tree line. While we were waiting for the close encounter that didn’t come, we trained our binoculars on the activity around the dam.
After a few eagle sightings, I began to understand the appeal of bird watching. The fun is in the wait, hoping for the payoff. Until then you are content to watch a bird, a dot really, through binoculars, sitting on a sheet of ice above the dam, or perched on a tree branch scoping out its next meal. In a way, I felt like I was imagining its features, projecting my image of the photographs I had seen of eagles onto the stationary dots. We watched and discussed these “dots” in detail, waiting for them to make a move. It was peaceful and oddly invigorating standing in the cold watching the birds’ activity. There seemed to be an unspoken code among bird watchers, “I’m here by you, not with you.” I welcomed the silence to which I am so unaccustomed.
After a while, we decided to rejoin the real world, and headed back to the car. From eagles, the topic of conversation turned to cupcakes. Driving into the park, you can’t help but notice the giant pink billboards on the highway emblazoned with Two Girls and a Cupcake. The shop wasn’t easy to ignore either; with its giant sign and hot pink Yeti statue in front. I had told my JD that we had to stop on the way home. He had protested, saying that we really didn’t need cupcakes. Since when are cupcakes about need?
We were greeted enthusiastically by one of the “girls” of Two Girls and Cupcake, Jill. The smell of baking and the warmth that enveloped me were welcome after the cold of the outdoors. In the kitchen, cupcakes were coming out of the oven two dozen or so at a time, the true meaning of “small batch”. While we were waiting, Jill told us about the countless customers who feel that they have earned a cupcake after a visit to the great outdoors. The tee-shirt hanging on the wall summed it up, “The real reason I come to Starved Rock”. Not the real reason I came, but definitely an added bonus.