Starved Rock: Eagles, Icicles and trail guides, oh my!

An easy going group, perfect weather and one delicious Pancake House stop to fill early morning bellies made for a lethal combination to trek across some highways to Starved Rock State Park in mid-January. Our intent was to capture some remarkable eagle sightings while taking in nature at its other best; cold and captivating.

From the ‘Bend,’ Starved Rock sits roughly 2.5 hours west just off I80/90 in Utica, Illinois. With 13 miles of wooded trails offering bluff views, 18 scenic canyons (formed by glacial melt-water and stream erosion) and over 2 million visitors annually, this ain’t your ordinary state park. In fact, Starved Rock was named a national historic landmark in 1966. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, it’s popular. This would explain the packed parking lot we arrived that Saturday afternoon – clearly other travelers had the same idea in mind (but I bet they didn’t have our breakfast!).

Starved Rock kindly offers two guided tours (by foot) for free. Our trail guide fed us knowledge on the various canyons, plant life and how things came to be. Orange ‘dust’ coated many of the large rock formations, leftover iron deposits from long-since-removed riverbeds. We learned that five (I think he said 5?) species of woodpeckers can be seen in the surrounding woods and that most (if not all) of the canyons have Native American namesakes (like Tonty and Kaskaskia). Regardless, Starved Rock does not have a deficit on diverse nature and wildlife inhabitants.

Most of our walk/hike was filled with nature close to the ground: we walked the narrow (and slippery!) trails, took in dormant tree life and ‘oohed’ and ‘ahed’ over some amazing frozen waterfalls. No eagles yet, but a word on these powerful birds of prey.

They are larger than any other raptor, save some vultures, with very large hooked beaks for tearing flesh, strong muscular legs and long, powerful talons. How powerful? Strong enough to crush a prey’s skull in a single move. The female of all known species is larger than the male, and they normally build their nests (eyries) in tall trees or on high cliffs (hence why Starved Rock is ideal breeding and sighting ground). An eagle’s eyes are extremely powerful, having up to 3.6 times human acuity (the martial eagle).

“They have at least one singular characteristic. It has been observed that most birds of prey look back over their shoulders before striking prey (or shortly thereafter); predation is after all a two-edged sword. All hawks seem to have this habit, from the smallest kestrel to the largest Ferruginous – but not the Eagles.” – Conclusion from various authors on birds.

Near the end of our hike, we came into a clearing along the river, which sat across an island where most of the eagles nest (and some even permanently live). We finally spotted two eagles perched near the top of a branch on the outermost edge of the island. Binoculars were handy. Starved Rock also had mounted scopes you could use (for free) to focus in on the majestic birds. We were satisfied; we had finally seen our powerful friend of the sky.

The tour concluded (the park was soon closing) and we made our way into the Visitor’s Center for a warmup on hot chocolate and post-trail hike conversation. Overall, an enjoyable and very doable day-trip with some fantastic scenery. I’m starving to go again 😉

guide hands inner ice chamber iron cliffupward ice falls trail hikers St. Louis Canyon

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