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Starved Rock is a unique winter birding destination
Illinois River and glacial terrain make park a haven for Bald Eagles and other species
Winter is known as a time of relative quiet in both the animal kingdom and at home here in the Midwest. People spend more time bundled up indoors. Our wild friends have spent months preparing for the time when food, daylight, and energy is scarce. Several species of birds have departed entirely, seeking out a warmer winter escape. Not true for the Bald Eagle, which sticks around to feast upon the abundant fish that occupy the waters around Starved Rock State Park Lock and Dam.
You wouldn’t think of Illinois in the winter as a prime vacation destination necessarily, but, as Bill Davison has written recently, it’s quite attractive. The still-flowing state of the Illinois River means an abundant food supply in contrast to our much colder northern neighbors. Starved Rock State Park offers plenty of vegetative and geographical features making it well-suited to the Bald Eagle, which takes advantage of the tall white pine trees in the park as perches, according to Lisa Sons, Natural Resource Coordinator/Park Naturalist, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, at Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks.
Sons points out that Bald Eagles are not actually a migratory bird; they, like many other birds of prey, mate for life and return to the same nesting site year after year, which the bird pairs build as a unit after a dramatic act of courtship. “The male and female will display an acrobatic aerial courtship of grasping talons in the flight and spiraling downwards together and break free right before they hit the ground,” she describes. Keeping close to their territory, which can encompass an area as large as 100 miles from the nesting site, makes sense for many reasons, including the sheer size of their nests: Sons says that the largest nest ever recorded was 9 by 20 feet and weighed more than a ton.
The best time to see the U.S. national bird at Starved Rock is in January and February. Sons points out that some of the most likely places to spot them might include bluffs looking out over the river, such as Starved Rock, the aptly-named Eagle Cliff, and Lovers Leap.
Starved Rock has an interesting geological history, shaped by glacier movement over tens of thousands of years. During the Ordovician Period, some 460 million years ago, a vast sunny beach along a shallow sea would provide quite different environs then what we are used to in Illinois, says Sons. Then 16,000 years ago the landscape was covered in a thick, 1-mile layer of glacial ice, coinciding with the most recent ice age. Just 10,000 years ago, we had entered the Holocene—our current epoch—and a time of rising global average temperature triggered glacial meltwaters to sweep into what is now the Illinois River Valley, gradually carving the sandstone into what we see at Starved Rock today.
The varied landscape of Starved Rock makes for some breathtaking views, particularly in a relatively flat place like Illinois, and those differing elevations deliver just as much on function as they do on form. Deep canyons offer pockets that are naturally cooler says Sons, making them hospitable for shrubs such as the Canada Yew, which climbs along canyon walls; Rough-winged Swallows, which build nests in the holes and crevices of the sandstone canyon walls in the summer; and the Eastern/Northern White Pine, Eastern Red Cedar, and Northern White Cedar. This Week in Birding founderadds that he has seen Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens regularly year-round at Starved Rock–species that are often hard to find around Chicagoland.
While Sons says that there aren’t too many instances of rare bird species being spotted in Starved Rock’s winter months, birders eagerly try to predict the nature of that year’s finch irruption. Sort of similar to an “eruption,” an irruption simply describes the sudden increase of a plant or animal species in a specific area, explains Sons. Finches follow the cycles of cone crops, which come from firs, spruces, and pines, with some years producing more bounty than others, thus affecting the presence of Evening Grosbeaks, Red Crossbills, White-Winged Crossbills, Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, and Purple Finches. “A few years back we had rare sightings of Red and White-Winged Crossbills, and we usually get Pine Siskins at our feeders by the visitor center,” she says.
Nearly a decade ago, Long-eared Owls were spotted at Starved Rock’s sister park, Matthiessen State Park, and Sandhill Cranes will sometimes make an appearance as well. “A couple of years ago, a group of five Sandhill Cranes dropped in to fuel up in the late fall on their way south and they had a Whooping Crane in tow!” Sons recounts. She recommends the eBird app to see if rare sightings have been documented in the area.
Winter is the perfect time to bundle up and visit Starved Rock State Park for a high success rate of catching a glimpse of the season’s most notable species: an illustrious Bald Eagle, a rare finch, or even a titmouse or wren.
Emily Torem has been writing about how our urban habitat can become more hospitable to natural flora and fauna for many years.
Join us for a Favorite Fluddles chat on World Wetlands Day, including a new film trailer
The Favorite Fluddles virtual chat is this Thursday, Feb. 2., at 7 p.m. on World Wetlands Day. The topic will be favorite wetlands, with several guests, and the first viewing of the trailer for the new film FLUDDLES. This free event is sponsored by Turnstone Strategies and Red Hill Birding, which provides professionally guided birding and wildlife tours all over the planet.