Eagles awe crowd at state park festival

By LINDA N. WELLER The Telegraphthetelegraph.com

GRAFTON – Hundreds of people enjoyed nature Sunday at the Bald Eagle Festival from inside warm, rustic Pere Marquette Lodge, in contrast to chilly temperatures outdoors.

“You only see your first bald eagle once,” said Christopher Renteria of St. Louis, who brought his 6-year-old son Max to see Sanibel, a Southern bald eagle.

“I think I’m going to love it,” Max said before heading over to see the eagle, which was on a T-shaped perch.

The large bird already had attracted a crowd of admirers at the other end of the lodge’s massive Great Room. Many in the group snapped photos as Sanibel frequently turned her head, seemingly striking poses.

She is used to performing.

“She comes out as a grand finale at Grant’s Farm” shows in St. Louis, said Trina Whitener of World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, Mo.

Sanibel, who looks much larger than her 10 pounds, injured her wing at her native Sanibel Island, Fla., and never can be released into the wild. The eagle, and a contingent of other birds of prey in a Masters of the Sky demonstration, were from the sanctuary.

The Renterias, who recently moved from Texas, had just driven from the sanctuary to Illinois for their first visit to Pere Marquette.

“This is really cool; it’s really nice here,” Christopher Renteria said, impressed with both the vintage lodge and its scenic, hilly grounds that rise above the Illinois River.

Among those in the curious crowd who were excited to be within feet of the massive bird was Ava Zytko, 12, of O’Fallon, Mo., who had her camera ready.

“I think it is actually pretty cool and amazing,” she said.

Her mother, Anne-Marie Zytko, agreed.

“To see the eagle up close is a great opportunity,” she said.

Festival attendees could browse tables and tables of merchandise, much handmade and nature-themed, included beadwork, leather goods, pottery, baskets, warm crocheted scarves, wood carvings and plaques and even good, solid walking sticks.

Others offered paintings, photos and prints, many reflecting the beauty of Pere Marquette Park, its birds, wild morels and the region’s rivers and limestone bluffs. People also could buy Illinois wine, and the owners of Olive Oil Market in Alton had tastings of their balsamic vinegars and olive oils.

What set the mood in the cavernous room replete with its dark woodwork and stone floors were strains of American Indian-style flute music and accompanying instruments. Lee P. Nix, of Farpoint Flutes of St. Louis, began playing his assortment of various-size wooden flutes positioned vertically on wooden stands.

Cody Alan, also of St. Louis, carefully played backup drum and guitars.

“He makes and sells flutes,” Alan said in between songs.

Flutist Jim Mayhew then joined the men with his wooden flutes, the trio attracting their own appreciative audience in the other corner of the room, charmed by the simple but hauntingly beautiful repertoire of songs.

In another part of the lodge, 300 people gathered in the Marquette Room to watch the sold-out educational Masters of the Sky show. As Whitener described each bird of prey – as well as its species’ particulars and hunting habits – the individual bird would swoop across the room only slightly above attendees’ heads, generating excitement and picture-snapping.

Jack, the Harris’ hawk from a Southwestern U.S. desert, was first on display. Jack headed straight for the top rafters of the tall, vaulted, pitched ceiling as Whitener talked about his species pushing prey until it wears out, then the birds circling for the kill. Despite some comparing the Harris’ hawk to wolves, Whitener said in contrast the most able of the group do not eat first. Instead, the old, young and weak get first feeding.

Among other feathery visitors in the show were Trucker, the Swainson’s hawk; and Desi, a “small” hooded vulture from Africa, that Whitener admitted is not all that little.

Whitener used humor and pointedly asked children to participate in the talk, such as asking what tools the hawk uses in hunting.

“He can read a newspaper from a football field away,” she said of Trucker, if he could read. “He has 500 pounds of pressure per square inch in his foot. He is a cousin to the red-tailed hawk that we have around here.”

Desi has a 6-foot-wide wing span, she said. “He has a skinny, lock-pick beak that is good for getting into all the little places; he is a professional nose picker” and eyeball router, she said, to laughter from the youngsters. She said larger vultures edge smaller ones from the carrion feast and Desi would have to settle for picking small scraps that remain, if in the wild.

Whitener said the sanctuary treated 400 birds at its avian hospital in 2012, many hurt by cars but others harmed by effects of last year’s drought. Recently, the sanctuary (http://www.worldbirdsanctuary.org) treated and released a trumpeter swan that a poacher had shot in the head with a pellet gun in Columbia Bottom Conservation Area in North St. Louis County, she said.

“We thought it might be dramatic, but he just floated away,” she said, smiling. “We have a 44 percent release rate; the national average is 36 percent.”

The festival was part of Pere Marquette State Park’s annual Bald Eagle Days. It offers eagle-viewing programs at 8:30 a.m. at various dates through March 6, with reservations required by calling (618) 786-3323. Information is available at: http://www.dnr.state.il.us/lands/Landmgt/PARKS/R4/PRM/EagleDaysBrochure.pdf