It's not only the snow we've seen plenty of this past week that flies our way in January and February.
Just ask any American bald eagle in transit.
The symbol of our freedom is also one of raptor-dom's royals, majestically moving south as early as December and as late March, all the better to find open, fresh water for feeding.
Illinois is home to more wintering eagles than any other state except Alaska, with an estimated 3,100 winging their way here until they begin migrating back north in March.
For us, that means areas along the Illinois River, particularly at ground zero, i.e., Starved Rock State Park near Utica, where its dam area maintains open water even as area bodies freeze over.
But the sightings are often common up and down the Illinois River.
Capitalizing on one of Midwest nature's most awesome spectacles are assorted parks, museums and nature centers located below the flight path.
According to information at www.starvedrockstatepark.com, tips for eagle-watching include:
- Scanning the treeline for eagles perched in the treetops.
- Looking overhead for eagles soaring high in the sky.
- Checking ice floes or river islands for eagles sunning themselves or enjoying a meal.
- Arriving early (7 a.m. to 9 a.m.) or staying late (4 to 5 p.m.), when eagles are most active.
- Being patient — the key to successful viewing is patience.
- Approaching eagles no closer than a quarter mile and avoiding roosting areas.
- Refraining from loud noises: honking horns, door slamming, radios playing, yelling, etc.
Following is a preview of some of the related events occurring within a three-hour radius of Bloomington-Normal in the weeks ahead.
Bald Eagle Trolley Tours, Starved Rock State Park, through Feb. 28; the guided tours depart the Starved Rock State Park Lodge at 11 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday; 9 a.m. Saturday; and 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
Viewing is at the Illinois Waterway Visitors Center, and includes an educational presentation, lunch during the week and brunch on Sunday. Tickets are $20-$32, with reservations required by calling 815-220-7386.
Eagle Watch Weekend, Starved Rock State Park, Jan. 27-28: A variety of events will take place at the Starved Rock Lodge, Starved Rock Visitor Center and Illinois Waterway Visitor Center (with trolleys shuttling between the sites each day).
Live birds of prey and raptor shows are at 10 a.m., and 1 and 3 p.m., at both the Lodge and at the Waterway Visitor Center. (The latter location also will feature area storyteller Brian "Fox" Ellis as John James Audubon in the presentation, "The Washington Eagle, and Other Raptors I Have Known.")
Most of the events are free, but some require a free ticket for admission. They are available the day of the event at Illinois Audubon Society information tables at each location.
Advance tickets for the live raptor shows can be purchased for $3 online at www.illinoisaudubon.org.
Eagles on the Illinois River, 10 a.m.-noon Saturday, Forest Park Nature Center 5809 N. Forest Drive, Peoria Heights: Presentations on bald eagles and driving tours to view them along the Illinois River. All events free, with no registration required; donations welcome. Call 309-686-3360 for more information.
Bald Eagle Day at Wildlife Prairie Park, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday, Wildlife Prairie Park, northwest of Peoria at Hanna City: Daylong family activities include live raptors on display and related programs, guided park hikes to view eagles, crafts and activities for kids, a bird scavenger hunt and more. Regular park admission rates apply (free to members, $5-$8 for non-members). Information: 309-676-0998.
Fulton-Mason Eagle Day Festival, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Feb. 3, Dickson Mounds Museum, Lewistown, and various locations in Fulton and Mason counties (Lewistown Visitors Center, Havana Park District Nature Center, Emiquon Preserve Visitor Use Observatories, Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge): Daylong activities at all locations, including live raptor demonstrations, related crafts for kids, auto tours, bird-watching, related art and poetry, and more. Admission is free; call 309-547-3721; a full schedule is at www.illinoisstatemuseum.org/content/fulton-mason-eagle-day.
Lake Shelbyville Eagle Day, 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Feb. 10, Lake Shelbyville Visitor Center, east of Main Dam, Shelbyville: bald eagle program for kids, birds of prey presentation, eagle "talk & gawk," more. Free, but advance tickets required at 217-774-3951.
For those willing to travel a bit father afield to view their bald eagles, there is plenty of action along the Mississippi River to the south:
Grafton's Pere Marquette State Park Bald Eagles Days (Jan. 19, 22, 26, 29, 30; Feb. 1-3, 5, 8, 23, 26; and March 1), Alton's Alton-Audubon Eagle Festival in the riverlands and downtown Alton (Saturday); Granite City's Eagle Days at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge (Jan. 13-14); Marion's Crab Orchard National Wild Life Refuge Eagle Watch at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge (Jan 27-28 and Feb. 3-4); and Quincy's Bald Eagle Watch at Lock and Dam 21 (Jan. 20-21).
Further to the north are Rock Island's Quad Cities Bald Eagle Days at Quad City Conservation Alliance Expo Center (Friday-Sunday) and Eagle Watch at Mississippi River Visitor Center (Jan. 13-14 and 27-28, Feb. 3-4 and 10-11).