Illinois Eagle Watching: 5 Tips for Heritage Corridor’s Flock to the Rock

If you’re visiting Chicago and want to escape to a lush wilderness with miles of recreational trails, Illinois & Michigan Canal Heritage Corridor is the perfect place to fall in love with nature on your trip to the Chicago area. This popular recreation destination draws visitors year-round, but its highly recommend to plan your trip in the winter, from January to March, during the annual Flock to the Rock celebration, where American bald eagles are the true stars of the show. During that time frame, the predatory birds migrate to Starved Rock State Park to take advantage of the prosperous Illinois River, which they call home for the next few months— making it a haven if you’re a bird-watcher.

During the winter, rivers in Alaska and Canada turn into ice, signaling the birds to fly south to Illinois and Michigan, where an abundance of food is still available in their waters. If you’re never had the pleasure of visiting the Heritage Corridor, you’re in for a real treat, so it’s important to remember these few helpful tips before making your trip. What’s to stop you from dropping everything you’re doing now and going today? After all, it’s only a short drive to this bird-watching paradise.

Tip No. 1: Be mindful of the rules. It’s important to brush up on the guidelines prior to your bird-watching experience to avoid any mistakes. For example, the birds are easily spooked when visitors get too close. When this happens, valuable energy is used—their ability to stay war—by flapping their wings to get away from bird-watchers. If you’re an experienced birder, you know you need to stay at least 300 yards away from the eagles on the opposite side of the river. This way, the eagles can continue their routines in uninterrupted harmony and you’ll get a spectacular view of the peaceful birds in their temporary refuge.

It’s true when they say the early birds get the worm, so rise early so you can see the best of the show. Come shortly after 9 a.m., to avoid interrupting their feeding and foraging time, and you’ll witness the marvelous creatures during their peak time—with a bellyful of fish. Keep in mind as the temperature drops, your chances of seeing the birds increase. So dress warm and head out to the Heritage Corridor for a quick day trip. Read all of the eagle watching tips here.

Tip No. 2: See as much as you can. While you’re here for the eagles, you don’t have to head right back home once you’re done. Instead, stay for awhile and explore some of the many parks located in the Heritage Corridor region. When the weather permits, the area is full of lush wilderness and has plenty of amenities for winter sports like ice climbing and winter hiking at Starved Rock State Park. Or go cross-country skiing at Matthiessen State Park, where ski rentals are available throughout the season. If it’s your first time skiing, take advantage of the private and group ski lessons that are offered at Dells Area in the park.

Make sure to check in and get approval from the Visitor Center before ice climbing.

If you have a need for speed, you’ll want to go snowmobiling along the historic I&M Canal towpath that’s 61-miles long, making it the longest record-breaking snowmobile path in the state. The snow must be more than four inches for snowmobiling to be permitted so plan accordingly.

Tip No. 3: Find the perfect accommodation for you. Does the idea of cozying up by the fireplace with a hot cocoa in hand after a day in the snow sound ideal to you? Then you’ll love Starved Rock Lodge & Conference Center that offers a picture-perfect winter retreat. You’ll have a choice of staying in one of its bona fide log cabins or in its main knotty pine-style building built in the 1930s, with modern conveniences like a hot tub, indoor pools and a sauna. You’ll especially enjoy the rustic setting, roaring fireplaces and carved woodworks found throughout the premises. Other lodging options from luxury hotels to intimate cabins can be found here.

Staying in a hotel will not only provide a cozy nightcap but a convenient way to get around. Trolley tours are often available to pick you up in front of your hotel and take you to scenic sights throughout the region. A guide will narrate the tour as you marvel at picturesque canyons, waterfalls and charming historic small villages. If you’re in the area during January and February, it’s suggested to hop on the Discover the Eagles Tour, where the heated trolley bus takes you to popular spots where eagles are known to dwell.

There are some great trolley tours during the winter at Starved Rock Lodge.

Tip No. 4: Eat your way through the local dining scene. Skip the fast-food joints because Heritage Corridor is home to plenty of fabulous dining options. Among the popular restaurants is Starved Rock Lodge’s own main dining room, where you’ll feast on gourmet meals like fish tacos, hearty salads, burgers and more. Other options include Red Dog Grill in Ottawa, best known for quesadilla, pizzas and burritos; Woody’s Steak House, a meat-lover’s paradise; and The New Chalet, which serves lighter fare. For an authentic Midwestern treat, head over to Cheese Shop n’ Deli, where you’ll find homemade sausages, meatball subs and other Old-World recipes. Ottawa is also the home of the trendy Lone Buffalo by Tangled Roots Brewing Company that’s known for its seasonal drink menu on tap. No matter what you’re in the mood for after a full day of eagle watching and winter hikes, Heritage Corridor has everything to satisfy your craving.

Tip No. 5: Plan ahead to attend a local event. During this time of year, the area has many winter events going on. Heritage Corridor is proud to host a number of exciting events like Sled Dog Demos at Starved Rock Lodge, where you’ll learn the art of dogsledding from the Free Spirit Siberian Rescue, and Trolley Trio Dinners, a once-a-month event where you can hop on and off the bus to three different establishments for delicious meals and drinks. If you prefer to avoid the festivities and opt for quiet time in this winter wonderland, you can monitor Heritage Corridor’s events calendar to plan accordingly. In between events, it’s also advised to check out some of its long-standing, iconic locations with tour companies like Hegeler Carus Mansion in LaSalle or Reddick Mansion in Ottawa, where you can admire the different history and architecture.

Want to know some of the best places to see Bald Eagles?  Click this link to see our “Top Five.”  You may get some amazing photos, like the one below.

This eagle was only about 15 feet away from me.

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