Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bald Eagle Watch, an indoor sport

Our trip to Starved Rock State Park at the end of January was occasioned by Bald Eagle Watch: A Celebration of Nature, sponsored by the Illinois Audubon Society and several other august organizations. In particular, the Raptor Awareness Program offered by the World Bird Sanctuary of St. Louis, MO, was a real treat.  Raptors are birds of prey, including the eagle, hawk, falcon, osprey, and owl families, and carrion-eaters like vultures and condors. Demonstrations of North American varieties are always interesting but are relatively easy to come by. Events featuring raptors from around the world are rarer opportunities. The World Bird Sanctuary's program was held indoors in a basketball court-sized room in Starved Rock Lodge; the birds are in captivity only because, for a wide variety of reasons, if released they would not be able to survive in the wild. The following wonder-birds were featured:

American bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) "Patriot"
Patriot weighs 12 lbs. and is clearly big enough to grab and carry large fish and other prey such as rabbits and small children.
Long-crested eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis) "Zeus"
The long-crested eagle is a South African bird, more petite than the bald eagle, but still a large bird, and sporting a particularly nice top-knot.
Tawny owl (Strix aluco) "Buzz"
Tawnies are small owls, widespread inEurope, Britain to Scandinavia, North Africa and North and West Asia.

Barn owl (Tyto alba) "Minerva"
Barn owls are utterly silent fliers. One handler went to back of the room and held up her hand. Minerva flew to  her fist on cue. The audience was told to close their eyes and listen. When we opened our eyes, Minerva was back at the front of the room on the hander's fist, but there was no sound of wingbeats what-so-ever. It was a funny mind-trick.
American kestrel (American Kestrel (Falco sparverius). I didn't get his/her name, but let's hear it for the little guy!
These colorful little falcons are also known as sparrow hawks for one of their favorite meals. I've been fortunate to watch them hunt, and also once in a blue moon they land on my window sill at home where I can observe their glorious gray and copper coloration. If the cat doesn't notice them first!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Parkitecture: Starved Rock Lodge

Indoor activities at Starved Rock State Park in Utica, IL, are to be had within this wonderful Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)-built lodge designed by Joseph F. Booten. It is slightly atypical as the exterior is not stone but it most certainly qualifies as significant parkitecture, not only because of it's historic value but because of its size and continuing high volume of year-round activity.
Though rustic, the exterior is a bit pedestrian (to my eye). However, on closer inspection, it abounds with fine 1930's Craftsman detail, as can be seen on the large ironwork hinges on the main doors from the outside,
with further features of the era on the inside:
A major principle of CCC works was the use of local materials, as in the massive limestone fireplace, still wood-burning and wonderfully fragrant and cozy (especially in Polar Vortex times), in the center of the lounge:
The chimney is similarly impressive. However, the moose is revisionist history, as Illinois summers are too hot for moose (and for me too, a lot of the time), and they have never been found in the state.  The chandelier, however, is fully in keeping with the parkitectural theme.
The furnishings in the restaurant and lounge were built to match, and to last.
While the lodge's original decor and accoutrements wonderfully transport one to an earlier time there are also successful contemporary references to the region's past, such as Linda Lowe's "Starved Rock Cartograph" pentaptych installation in the registration area:
And Michael Jones's "Starved Rock Totem" on the grounds:
And these clever, if not especially artistic, chain-saw productions arising from rooted tree stumps around the lodge:
What a great celebration of an unmatched period in public architecture Starved Rock Lodge is.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Hiking the Polar Vortex

The story of "Starved Rock" has its genesis in the late 18th century skirmish between the Ottawa and Illiniwek Indians. Following the murder of Ottawa Chief Pontiac by an Illiniwek, the story goes, the Ottawa pursued, encircling the fleeing Illiniwek who attempted to find sanctuary on the flat top of a large sandstone rock formation on the south side of the Illinois River. The Ottawa simply waited below the rock until the stranded Illiniwek died of hunger, thus exacting revenge without shedding a drop of blood. The story is apocryphal, but the name, however it came to be, lives on. That's the eponymous rock (really an eroded bluff) rising 200 feet above the trees there in Starved Rock State Park, in Utica, Illinois.
The geologic history is better documented; the St. Peter sandstone formations that by happy cataclysmic accident survived the flattening glaciers that steam-rolled the rest of northern Illinois are what make for the park's interesting scenery and our sweet little winter hike to the origin of Ottawa "Canyon" one sunny, frigid January day.
The trail starts across the road from the river. It doesn't look too fun or safe...
Oddly, the otherwise nearly comprehensive the sign doesn't warn about dressing properly for conditions. 
But in fact, properly attired, it's a (mostly*) easy, lovely walk even in sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures, the naked trees admitting the slanting winter light. Must be equally beautiful in every season, each in its own way.
Before long we came to the first landmark, Council Overhang, described as a natural amphitheater. It's quite spectacular, decorated as it is with veins of dark yellow rock. I'm guessing the ceiling may have been blackened by fires -- man-made --- under its sheltering roof.
The cliffs of the canyon -- the very soft yellow-banded St. Peter limestone -- arise steeply only to the west.
To the east, that it is a canyon is only suggested by gentle tree-covered rises.
There were others hiking that day as well.
We never saw the red foxes that left their footprints to tantalize us.
An eighth of a mile beyond the Overhang we reached the end of the little trail marked by a most dramatic frozen waterfall.
I don't know how high it is, but given that KLK (to the left, on the bank of the creek) is 6 feet tall, it looks to be about 40 or 45 feet top to bottom. The shallow creek fed by the falls was frozen so we could easily walk under it.
Looking out from the canyon, with the falls at our back, was beautiful in the winter light, too.
*While this little walk on the snowy trail and frozen creek was quite safe overall, on the way back from the falls, on a short, steep rise leading back to Council Overhang, we found our boots absolutely could not gain purchase on the frozen trail. Nor were there bushes or trees, nothing but the sheer limestone wall on one side, to grab to pull ourselves up. It was really quite ridiculous (and probably hilarious to anyone watching our little drama) but there was no way to ascend. Happily an outdoorsman came along the trail above us and when he saw our predicament, smartly got down on all fours and extended an arm for each of us in turn to grab onto. All's well that ends well, we made it back to blog about!