February 9, 2016

Starved Rock: Eagle Watching and Ice Falls (Feb. 2016)

Those canyon walls go high

Monday, Feb 1, 2016
Starved Rock State Park
Southwest of Chicago; Near Utica, IL (LaSalle County)
42.426496, -87.804924

Appx 30°F

My friends Ray and Mirlanda wanted to get out of town for the day to go see some eagles at Starved Rock State Park. Of course I wanted to tag along. It is said that eagles like to winter at the cliffs of Starved Rock, so our chances for seeing some was good. I grabbed my camera gear and jumped in the car.

For those near Chicago who haven't yet been to Starved Rock State Park, go as soon as you can. For a state with flatlands throughout, the canyons and forests of Starved Rock are treasures. It's a visit with spectacular views and terrain features that are reachable in any season. I'm sure I'll write about the park more since it's only about a two-hour drive from the city and close to the family farm. I should be taking more than one trip there annually...

It was sunny and relatively warm when we left Chicago. As we approached Utica, though, the sun illuminating the cornfields was snuffed out by a fog cloud. The temperature dropped by 20 degrees as well, prompting me to break out my Mountain Hardwear shell for the hike. We had a nice chili lunch provided by Ray, which made the trip in a new green Stanley tall boy thermos. What better way to break in a construction worker thermos?

The parking lot was full of conservation police, which must have been engaging in a bust. There were over 30 of these vehicles. Someone was breaking the rules. Guys, leave no trace. Seriously. They'll find you.

Conservation Police

After lunch and a brief stop in the visitor's center, we started on the trails. Our first stop was French Canyon, then to the Eagles. If we had time, we'd continue on the trail to the bluffs and see what lay beyond. The initial part of the path though was muddy - so be ready for some sloshing along the trails if snows have recently melted or if it's rained.

Alas, there are no trash cans on the trails, so make sure you trash your junk properly. There's a "LAST GARBAGE CAN" clearly marked at the opening of the trail system near the visitor's center. Pack it in, pack it out - do it the old scout way. Leave no trace. Be a cool kid. 

Our first stop was icy French Canyon. Multiple frozen falls hugged the layered walls of the canyon's creek. Some broken sheets of ice crumbled over the creek logs as a trickle of just-melted water ran through the canyon bed. Cuts in the creek walls showed the age of the canyon.

French Canyon

French Canyon

Sheets of broken ice

French Canyon Creek

French Canyon's main "waterfall" was just a small frozen January pool. The plumbing wasn't really working. To find bigger falls, we'd have to go farther into the park.

French Canyon

We started working our way up to Lover's Leap. As you start to ascend the cliffs, wooden paths guide your steps. This was welcomed as the mud was thick and sloppy. Ray was impressed with the sploik sounds the mud made on his boots, which had enough emphasis and volume to make a Hannah Barbera foley artist squeal with joy.

Starved Rock

We huffed our way up to Lover's Leap and set up our camera equipment. We took in some of the pretty views of Starved Rock, the ship locks, and the hydro dam on the river.

Starved Rock

Locks at the IL River Dam

Josh brought a large lens in hopes that we'd be able to better scope eagles from afar. We were not disappointed. Shortly after setting up and looking around with binoculars, we found a pair of eagles on the distant island refuge that is managed by the Illinois Audubon Society, to the north of the actual Starved Rock in the Illinois River.

We set the scope on the eagles from afar and were able to snap a few photos of them, even with low light conditions.

Eagles in a tree
Shot from 300mm

Eagles at Starved Rock
Shot from Josh's supertelephoto spotting scope, not sure the focal length

Eagles at Starved Rock

Our second eagle stop was just up the trail a few yards at Eagle Cliff. The outlook gives you eastward views over the Illinois River. There are fewer trees and cliffs here to spot birds, but there are larger expanses available that are not blocked by trees growing on the bluff. There's a large island to the northeast on which many canada geese call home.

Island full of geese

Illinois River

Illinois River

We saw mallards, pintails, and perhaps even some teals fly by, but our IDing skills were not that great in the lower light conditions. Although they were too far away for us to scope well, we did find a couple eagles perched on a log protruding from the river.

Our best shot of the day was entirely missed by the telephoto lenses. An eagle decided to fly directly at us and overhead. Instead of fiddling with my camera for what would likely be a bad shot, I was perfectly content to watch with my binoculars. Beautiful birds.

Even without birds, the Eagle Cliff viewpoint is fun to hike to and offers expansive scenes of the river's reach. 

Eagle Cliff Overlook

Eagle Cliff Overlook

Illinois River

No more photos, please

After we were done at Eagle Cliff (it got chillier), we wanted to see some more canyons. Just east of Eagle Cliff is Wildcat Canyon. You hike down Eagle Cliff, walk along the river, and into the inlet at Wildcat Canyon.

Panorama on the lower river trail

Creek out of Wildcat Canyon

In January, the canyon's waterfall and creek are pacified, allowing you to walk into the center and get up close and personal with the crystallized falls. Big chunks of ice crumbled around the base of the falls. We skated on the frozen sheet up to the falls and examined it a bit - it's not every day you can not get soaked when standing a foot from a waterfall.

Frozen stream

Inside Wildcat Canyon

Wildcat Canyon frozen waterfall

Frozen waterfall photography

It's like a shower stall!

Those canyon walls go high

Wildcat Canyon, from inside the canyon

Ray got some good action shots of me around the frozen pillar.

Walking on ice

Me at Wildcat Canyon's frozen waterfall

A smaller second falls dropped down from the eastern canyon wall. Both falls had a small trickle of water running, just enough to keep the pipes from completely freezing.

Frozen waterfall

Mini frozen waterfall

We hiked back to the top of the canyon (i.e., huff huff) as it was starting to get dark. We headed back to the parking lot from a different route. The fog in the forest provided a wonderful backdrop for some forest hiking. The wooden paths complimented the thick, cottony air as we trekked back to the main path.

Looking out over the canyon

Forest trail

Forest path

Foggy forest days

Look down French Canyon

Also worth mentioning, I walked away with a new patch for my collection. The gift shop was closed the last couple times I was at Starved Rock, so this was finally my chance to pick one up.


Take a trip to Starved Rock in the winter and find some eagles. They might even do some fishing and flybys for you.

Photo Album

Hover over photos to get slideshow controls. Click on a photo to go to Flickr, or go to album »
Eagles and Frozen Canyons at Starved Rock (IL)

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