It’s eagle watching time
Winter is a great time to view bald eagles along the Illinois River.
In fact, eagles are becoming so plentiful inIllinois during the winter, one might even be visible riding in the car one lane over.
Tom Clay says that’s one of his favorite stories about working the annual Bald Eagle Watch Weekend at Starved Rock State Park near Utica. Clay is executive director of Illinois Audubon, one of the sponsors of the event along with the Starved Rock Lodge and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In the “other duties as assigned” category, Clay says he has found himself driving a volunteer wearing an eagle costume between the Starved Rock Lodge and Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, where people view eagles at the lock and dam.
“There is always a lot of traffic and these people look over and realize there is a bald eagle riding shotgun in a Hyundai,” he says with a laugh.
Illinois is home to the largest wintering concentration of bald eagles in the lower 48 states.
And eagle-watching events — designed to help people learn about the eagles that winter along the Illinois River — take scores of volunteers and countless hours to produce.
Clay says more than two dozen volunteers from his organization alone are needed to put on the event at Starved Rock scheduled for Jan. 24-25. The event is in its 12th year.
“Oh my gosh, I would say there are probably 25 people between the Starved Rock Audubon chapter and statewide Audubon members that are on the workforce between the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center and Starved Rock Lodge,” he says. “We have people coming in pretty much from all over the state to help out.”
Depending on the weather and viewing conditions, thousands of people turn out to watch eagles at Starved Rock.
Live birds of prey programs are scheduled for both venues. At the lodge, the World Bird Sanctuary from St. Louis fills a 250-seat room for every one of its three daily shows.
But Clay says watching the first-timers who have never seen eagles up close gives him the most satisfaction.
“Just listening to their comments — it’s so much fun,” he says.
Illinois Audubon also owns Plum Island, in the middle of the river between the park and the lock and dam. The island provides a safe place for eagles to sit during the day. People can watch from either side of the river, but the eagles can go about their business undisturbed.
A number of other communities and organizations have bald-eagle programs scheduled for this winter.
* Driving tours are offered at Pere Marquette State Park near Grafton.
Programs begin at the park’s visitor center at 8:30 a.m. with a short video presentation, followed by an observational drive. Programs begin Dec. 22 and 23. For more information and a complete schedule and registration information, call (618) 786-3323.
* Bald Eagle Appreciation Days will be held Jan. 17-18 on the Mississippi River near Keokuk, Iowa. Keokuk bills itself as home to the largest winter concentration of eagles on the Mississippi.
* The annual Eagle Day Festival is scheduled for Feb. 7 at Dickson Mounds Museum near Lewistown and along the riverfront in Havana.
For one Illinois River town, the annual eagle festival won’t be held this year due to a key volunteer’s illness.
Dora Dawson has led efforts to promote Meredosia’s river heritage and its bald eagles for many years. But a stroke and resulting carotid artery surgery has her sidelined for now.
“I went back to the doctor the day before yesterday and I was complaining that I couldn’t do very many things, and the nurse said, ‘How old do you think you are – 16?’ ” she says with a laugh. “I’m not 16; I’m 77.”
Meredosia had to close its river museum due to lack of volunteers and funds this year. Dawson says that unless someone steps in to take it over, the museum won’t open again and the eagle-watching festival will go by the wayside.
“There won’t be (a bald eagle watching event) unless somebody else does it,” she says. “I can’t do it.”
Despite her recent setback, Dawson is upbeat about her time spent promoting the Illinois River.
“I’ve met so many nice people through that history museum,” she says. “But I just took on too much.”