Wild Bird People
What birdwatchers see when they look at eagles.
Thursday, March 11, 2004
We had gone back to The Rez to see the eagle. Somebody’d read about it in the Bergen Record—it was the first bald eagle to be sighted in that part of the world in years; DDT had, of course, decimated the population. This one made the front page.
We were a bunch of standard-issue 16-year-old make-believe tough guys. Back when we were little kids, we had all snuck into the woods surrounding The Rez to play all the time, before we became too cool for such things. The eagle brought us back.
The Oradell Reservoir, on the Hackensack River 15 miles west of New York City, is a big containment that feeds most of northern New Jersey. It was and is an oasis in the middle of the nation’s original suburban desert. It was and is surrounded by a chain-link fence with barbed-wire on top, patrolled by water cops whose job it is to keep kids out.
I remember the day of our return. We were lying on our backs, spread out across the lawn on a hillside behind the water treatment plant. I sort of remember what it felt like to lie there looking up into the sky, hoping.
We went back almost every day after school for a couple of weeks. Sometimes we’d go down to the shoreline, to a place where I’d built a driftwood raft and a cool underground fort when I was ten or eleven. Other times we’d climb into a decrepit old treehouse.
We never did see the eagle.
It was more than three years later, the first time I saw one. I had moved to California, and was on my first backpacking trip in Big Sur. My girlfriend and I had hiked to the top of Cone Peak, 5,000 feet above the Pacific. I had never really been on a mountaintop before, and the feeling was too much for my teenaged heart—I let out a whoop of triumph and exaltation that would embarrass me today. A second later, a flash appeared a dozen feet below us: sunlight glinting off the iridescent brown wings of a golden eagle. We watched it soar out toward the ocean and disappear into the distance. It was little more than a glimpse of power and grace but something about it felt delicious.
Ten years after that, I was living in a cabin on Fred Burr Creek in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains, hard against the biggest piece of wild land in the lower 48. It was my first winter, and I was seeing bald eagles every day. But I really had no idea what an eagle is about until early one morning in November.
I had stepped outside to fetch firewood when something caused me to look up. What I saw took my breath away. Just above the treetops, framed in a narrow strip of sky, a bald eagle hovered, almost still in the cold wind. The enormous thing was glaring, fiercely, right at me. It probably had a seven-foot wingspan. It looked like a beautiful monster.
I am not a serious birdwatcher. I’ve never taken part in the New Year’s Day count. I have no life list, no Swarovski binoculars. But I scan the treetops every time I come across a river.
Three weeks ago, I took a short hike at Pacheco Pass on the way home from Yosemite. Walking up toward a ridge with a view of the water, I saw a man sitting on a rock on the crest. But then I realized it wasn’t a man. Golden eagle.
I looped around and walked up the backside of the hill, out of sight, finally arriving in a small grove of oaks. I got to within maybe 25 feet of it. Turns out that golden eagles are very pretty from close up.
It caught wind of me and casually flipped itself into the air, five-by-five of brown iridescence soaring off across a drainage, then under the trees on the other side, skimming the wet grass and finally up and out over the water, disappearing into the air.
I told this story to Sheila Foster, PR gal for the Ventana Wilderness Society (VWS), and she invited me on a VWS-sponsored “Eagle Cruise.”
And so a week ago Sunday, I found myself scanning the treetops of the cottonwoods along the Salinas River (an involuntary action—I know there are no eagles there) as I drove east on Highway 68 on my way to Lake San Antonio, a reservoir in southern Monterey County.
On the boat, VWS Director Kelly Sorenson told me about the reintroduction program. After 13 years, there are now several breeding pairs of bald eagles in Monterey County, including one pair that has just built a nest on Lake San Antonio’s banks.
Fifteen minutes later, one of those eagles appeared overhead. It was being dive-bombed by two red-tailed hawks, flipping itself upside down and flashing its talons to repel them. There were 20 people in the boat, all looking through binoculars, all gasping in awe.
There is a similar reintroduction program going on in New Jersey. I was surprised and pleased to find this online, just today: In a December, 2003 bird count, 14 bald eagles were sighted at the Oradell Reservoir.