For many visitors, a trip to Starved Rock Country during the winter months means wine tastings, delicious dinners, scenic hikes and cozy cabins, but this majestic stretch of north-central Illinois is also home to some of the best winter eagle watching the Midwest has to offer.
The Illinois Audubon Society’s Plum Island Sanctuary, located at the base of the Starved Rock Lock, has long been a favorite wintering site for bald eagles. The broken-up ice, reliable food source and sturdy nesting trees make this small stretch of the Illinois River a reliable place for birders, photographers and nature lovers to see these beautiful birds of prey in their natural habitat.
To celebrate this, Starved Rock’s annual Eagle Watch Weekend is slated to be held on Jan. 27 and 28. This partnership between Starved Rock State Park, Starved Rock Lodge and Conference Center and the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center offers two full days of eagle-related demonstrations, lectures and guided hikes. These activities are offered to the public on a first-come basis free of charge, along with select activities that are free to attend but require pre-registration. A convenient trolley shuttle will be taking guests to all the event locations, for $5 you will get all-day unlimited ride pass. The trolleys will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m, taking guests to the Lodge, Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, along with the Utica Village Hall gym and Starved Rock Country Welcome Center on Sunday.
Due to flooding on the Illinois River, parking may be limited. Guests are encouraged to use the overflow lot, located just the lodge site.
At the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, activities will take place on both Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 27 and 28. From 9 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., the Starved Rock Audubon Society will be on hand with viewing scopes to help you spot eagles and answer your questions. On Saturday, the Waterway will host “Raptor Awareness” a 45-minute live birds of prey show will be presented at 10am, 1pm and 3pm by Hoo Haven - these shows have a maximum capacity of 75 guests, first come first serve. On Sunday, the visitor center will present “Photographing Raptors & Wildlife” a lecture by professional photographer David Anderson from 10 a.m. to 10:45 a.m, guests are encouraged to bring their own cameras. Also on Sunday, The Great Lakes Falconry Association will host a birds of prey and falconry show dubbed “A Partnership with Birds of Prey” from 1:00 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. and a “Bald Eagle Craft and Storytime” will be presented by Park Ranger Sarah Fisher from 3 p.m. to 3:45 p.m.
Starved Rock Lodge and Conference center will be hosting special programs both days, along with a selection of exhibitors offering information about local attractions and giveaways in the Great Hall. The Illinois Raptor Center will be returning this year to offer their “Raptor Awareness” lecture at 10 a.m, 1 p.m, and 3 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Held in the Great Hall West, this 45-minute live birds of prey show is a ticketed event, free tickets will be available two hours prior to each show in the Great Hall (starting at 8 a.m. for the 10 a.m. show). Limit of 10 tickets per person, seating is limited to 185 people per show. On Sunday, Master Naturalist Natalie Martin will be hosting a Bald Eagle Craft and Storytime from 10 a.m. to 10:45 a.m, a costumed eagle will be in attendance. A photography seminar will be presented by professional photographer Sandra Rust from 1 p.m. to 1:45 p.m.
Due to flooding on the Illinois River, all Eagle Watch Weekend events that were scheduled to take place at the Starved Rock State Park Visitor Center (except guided hikes) have been moved up to Starved Rock Lodge. The Starved Rock Lodge Trolley Shuttle will be running Saturday and Sunday to the Illinois Waterway. Wristbands are $5 per person. Pay with cash upon boarding or pay with a credit card at the Starved Rock Lodge Activities Office. Overflow Parking will be open to all guests as well as the parking lot at Starved Rock Lodge. Seating at all “Birds of Prey” Shows is on a first-come, first-served basis.
These relocated activities include additional Raptor Awareness shows, offered by the Illinois Raptor Center at 10 a.m, 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday. On Sunday, Starved Rock State Park Naturalist Lisa Sons will be hosting a Bald Eagle Craft and Storytime at the Visitor Center’s A/V at 10 a.m. Professional photographer and videographer Matthew Klein will be holding an informative photo lecture starting at 1 p.m. and Mac Chamberlain will host a lecture on owl research starting at 3 p.m.
New for 2024, the gym at Utica’s Village Hall will host a series of “Meet & Greet” sessions with live birds of prey. Get up close and take your own photos with some of the Illinois Raptor Center’s birds of prey. Meet and greets will be held at 10 a.m, 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Admission is free, but pre-registration is required - visit starvedrocklodge.com/event/eagle-watch-weekend-2 to reserve your spot.
While you’re at Utica’s Village Hall, be sure to visit the Starved Rock Country Welcome Center & Illinois Made Gift Shoppe at the other end of the building! Located just a block from Utica’s bustling Mill Street, this center is your gateway to exploring the region around Starved Rock State Park. While you’re there, shop for Illinois-made gifts like artisan walking sticks, pottery, and more. You’ll also find a variety of brochures, maps, and guidebooks to help you plan your adventure across Starved Rock Country.
Eagle Watch Weekend is possible because of the financial support of many, hours of work from volunteers and the passionate commitment from raptor educators and rehabilitation centers. The organizers would like to thank LaSalle County Tourism, Heritage Corridor Destinations, Starved Rock Country Welcome Center, Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois Waterway Visitor Center (US Army Corps of Engineers – Rock Island District), Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Village of North Utica, Illinois Raptor Center, Hoo Haven, Stillman Nature Center, Great Lakes Falconers Association, Illinois Beach State Park “Hawk Watch”, Starved Rock Hikers, Starved Rock Foundation, Starved Rock Audubon Society, Matthew Klein (Matthew Klein Films/Photography & Reel Creative), Sandra Rust - Joliet Professional Photographer, David Anderson - Professional Photographer, Natalie Martin - Owner of Just Ask Nat, LLC, Mac Chamberlain - Owl Education, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Canal Corridor Association, Environmental Education Association of Illinois, University of Illinois Master Gardeners and Nicolina’s Turtles.
Will you spot some bald eagles in the wild during the Eagle Watch Weekend? There’s a good chance. The numbers vary from year to year, and even day to day, but the cold winter weather tends to concentrate the birds by the water near the Starved Rock dam. When the weather is warmer, birds will hunt up and down the river leaving fewer near Plum Island. Follow Starved Rock Country on Facebook for additional information on eagle counts and Eagle Watch Weekend.