We went to see the bald eagles yesterday -- or the balden eagles as our 4-year old who inspired the trip calls them. (Note: don't underestimate the educational value of hanging a dimestore birdfeeder in whatever you call your back yard. Little more than sparrows, cardinals and a few pigeons have shown up so far, but it got him looking through bird books until he decided the balden eagles were the ones to see.)
We piled into the family's new Honda Accord Hybrid and drove the 100 miles down to Starved Rock State Park. (Note about the Hybrid: once you've had the experience of stopping in traffic without the sensation of idling, you'll have a hard time going back to a non-hybrid again. They're so quiet. Who cares if they don't get all the predicted mileage? They're a joy over the noisier fume-belching SUV alternative . . . that we also own.)
Around last November, the bald eagles began showing up on the banks of the Illinois River for the season and the last ones will remain until about early March. Their three-and-a-half foot frames were so easy to spot perched in the bare trees that they may as well have been brown labradors. By the end of our trip (which included a "trolley" tour), we had seen nearly a dozen bald eagles -- several of them soaring overhead. They were magnificent.
In the last forty years, bald eagles have made a genuine comeback, moving from an endangered to threatened species, and since 1999, the federal government has been thinking of taking them off the lists. One Starved Rock official said they had seen as many as 60 eagles earlier this year and more than 100 last year.
The downside of the park is that it overlooks a dam and a lock. A lot of barge traffic, some of it marked flammable, passes right in front of one of the observation areas, but the eagles like the dam because it traumatizes the chad (fish) as they pass through it, making them easy prey. Untouched wilderness this state park is not.
From a lot of the park, you can see the locks and dam, a few farm silos, and some industrial sites, and along the trolley route to the observation area, we saw garbage lying all over the roadside. Meanwhile, the Starved Rock Lodge broadcasted music (Dreamweavers, Bob Seger) through loudspeakers mounted outside. Our experience ended up being more about the eagles' interaction with our built environment than a city escape to see a natural wonder.
The upsides are that the Illinois Audobon Society saved an important eagle roost, Plum Island, from developers, and that, um, we have state parks.
Yet, clearly, those of us who care about conservation and nature have a lot of work to do. The cliches are true that bulldozers are eating up our land and that we have to remain vigilant against some sorts of "progress." (I know, I know, it's on our list to get rid of the SUV. This is an awakening conscious at work here, not a perfect one.)
I asked my son this morning while I was buttering his toast what he thought about our trip to see the eagles.
"I'd like to go back."
"Oh, but most of them will be leaving soon and won't be back until next winter, a year from now." I said.
"That's okay," he said while focusing yesterday's binoculars on his cereal. "I can wait."