They don’t come around often, but when they do, it’s a big deal. American bald eagles have been on the endangered species list since 1997 and are beautiful to behold. Every winter, you can spot them in Starved Rock State Park, located an hour-and-a-half southwest of Chicago. Watching them soar over the rocky landscape beats a trip to the zoo, so take the kids out for an eagle-spotting adventure. We’ve got the scoop on what you need to know.

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When to Go
Bald eagles can be seen throughout the winter months, however prime eagle-watching season is mid-January through early-February. That’s when the largest amount of migrating eagles converge at Starved Rock, because their regular habitats further north are frozen. Eagles hunt for food in the wide-open waterways of the Illinois River valley, and the surrounding scenic rock bluffs are also part of the allure; they are carved out with canyon coves where eagles seek refuge from cold winter winds.

Starved Rock goes all-out in honor of the eagles and will host the 17th Annual Illinois Audubon Society Bald Eagle Watch Weekend on January 25 & 26, 2014. Free events happen from 9-5 p.m. each day at Starved Rock Lodge, the Illinois Waterway Visitors Center and the Starved Rock State Park Visitors Center. They are all family friendly and most are free.

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Special Events
For a good overview of the area and understanding of bald eagles, attend a Birds of Prey program, held January 25 & 26 at 10 a.m., noon, 2 & 4 p.m. at Starved Rock Lodge (located east of the intersection of Routes 178 & 71 near Utica, Illinois). The Illinois Audubon Society will be there with a live bald eagle, offering insights into its behavior and habitat in a way that kids can easily understand. This program is free, but tickets are required in advance at the Lodge’s Activities Department. Children’s activities take place in the Lodge from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily.

Over at the Illinois Waterways Visitors Center, located in Oglesby near a modern lock and dam, there is a similar Birds of Prey program happening January 25 & 26 at 11 a.m., 1 & 3 p.m. A Native American dance performance happens at 10 a.m., noon & 2 p.m. Tickets for all of these events are free, but are required and available at the Center. Kids can also enjoy face painting from 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and a bird feeder craft project from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily.

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Walk the Trails
Starved Rock State Park has 13 miles of winding trails, some more challenging than others due to steep inclines. If you have small children that might not have the endurance or desire to take a hike, book the Bald Eagle Trolley Tour through Starved Rock Lodge’s Activities Department. Tours take place on Mondays, Wednesday, Saturdays and Sundays and include lunch in the historic Main Dining Room, a historic trolley tour, stops for viewing eagles in their roosting sights along with an informative program on eagles and other birds of prey.

If your kids can handle a heftier trek, sign up for a Guided Winter Hike, during which you’ll hike along a bluff trail atop one of the canyon coves where eagles are commonly spotted seeking warmth. Another spot great for viewing the Illinois River valley and perhaps a flying eagle is the Starved Rock Lodge Veranda. First, fuel up with a meal in the Main Dining Room or Back Door Lounge and then spend time outdoors and on the lookout.

Other Tips
Eagle spotting takes patience and the courage to withstand cold temperatures. Dress warmly (layers, layers, layers!) and step inside as needed. Also remember to bring binoculars and a camera.

Make a full weekend out of your trip and stay the night at Starved Rock Lodge & Cabins. The Lodge has 69 guest rooms and an indoor pool complex with its own kids’ pool. The cabins, surrounded by pretty pines, have two rooms and are meant for families. They don’t have TVs, but the Front Desk has board games you can borrow.

For more information on eagle spotting and staying overnight in Starved Rock, call 800-868-7625 or go online to starvedrockstatepark.org or illinoisaudubon.org.

Have a fun adventure, everyone!

Have you ever spotted a bald eagle in Illinois? Let us know in the Comments section below.

— Kelly Aiglon, with information and reporting by Pam Rowe & Kathy Casstevens of Starved Rock State Park & Starved Rock Lodge

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Photos (from top to bottom): Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife via Flickr creative commons, Starved Rock State Park, Curtis Abert via Flickr creative commons