Eagle Day

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It was zero on my outdoor thermometer when I took the dogs for their early morning walk under a brilliant January sun, grateful that today there would be no wind because Bruce and I were going to spend at least two hours outdoors on a look out point spying for eagles.

The drive to Abiquiu lake was stunning. All the hills were covered with a fine coating of snow that seemed to etch and pull each rounded peak forward, highlighting the layers upon layers of mountains that lay behind one another – creating an undulating earth tapestry. Here and there patches of red were visible. As always the colors of the stone cliffs that lined the highway on one side captured my attention. Bruised purple, lavender, pink, ochre, buff and red rock provided a continuous visual feast for hungry eyes.

Below: red hills and mountains from look out

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Many people turned out for this bird watching/counting event, and a brief power point presentation inside the Core of Engineers’ office discussed some of the reasons for this event. I recalled that southern bald eagles were smaller than those in the northeast, but neglected to ask what the differences amounted to in weight. I learned that no one knows why there are so few bald eagles in New Mexico. I puzzled over this conundrum because there are many areas of open water and the Rio Grande flows through the state. I was discouraged to hear that eagles were still being shot in this state and that lead poisoning was still the second cause of death for these majestic predators. We were also told that eagles were quite “lazy” a word I wouldn’t use to describe eagle behavior because I know from personal experience that these birds are opportunistic choosing to steal fish or game that has been caught by others if they have the chance, in order to conserve precious energy, but who also hunt extensively on their own. I think this flexible attitude of theirs speaks to eagle intelligence. To cite another example – it is well known that Corvids like crows and ravens all use the same techniques for hunting if they can get away with it. These birds also use tools and have been studied extensively for intelligence (see Biologist Bernrd Heinrich’s work).

Before the group dispersed – some went on two boats and the rest of us were directed to look out points on land – we got a chance to meet Maxwell, a captive adult male eagle who could not be returned to the wild because of a wing injury. I have spent a lot of time in my kayak watching the eagles on North Pond (in Maine) raise their young, but I had never been this close to a live eagle before. Poor Maxwell seemed very nervous, and who could blame him? We were all enthralled, and busy snapping too many pictures for his comfort. A couple of times he tried to fly up and away. His great talons looked deadly and I was surprised to learn that he could only carry two pounds of prey. I knew for a fact that northern eagles made away with unsuspecting cats and adult loons who often weighed much more than two pounds! I had personally witnessed an adult cat capture on a neighbor’s field in Maine, a few years ago.

Maxwell’s sharp curved beak was huge (and larger than that of the golden eagle whose territory overlapped that of the bald eagles in this area) but it was his ice blue eyes that bored holes through me when I looked into them. The other thing that struck me forcibly was the sight of his pure white tail feathers, which fanned out both times Maxwell tried to escape. The feathers were Sangre de Christo mountain white, the color of newly fallen snow. Almost blue.

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Dispersing to the look out point that Bruce had chosen I felt excited by the prospect of sighting eagles soaring in the air. When we reached the top of the knoll (almost) about ten or fifteen of us we all began to scan the horizon. We were in radio contact with all the other folks and it wasn’t long before the first eagle was spotted. I found it difficult to find this particular bird that was perched on what seemed like a very low snag. He looked small in the distance. We had seen a couple more eagles when someone spotted a female mule deer running down below us. I was thrilled. I have lived here since last August, and although I have seen tracks, I have yet to spot a mule deer in the flesh. I had forgotten how mule deer bound – almost bounce along – because it has been 20 years since I last saw one in Arizona.

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Above Abiquiu lake from our look out point

To my utter amazement, a few moments later we glimpsed a male mule deer, with a full set of antlers, enter the water just below us and begin to swim. I was dumbfounded! The Park Ranger remarked that he was trying to get away from us and I concurred. People hunt both deer and elk and because of that they both have learned to fear humans. (I just hoped that men hunted them primarily for food, as the Tewa do). Watching the buck through binoculars, I was riveted by the sight of this majestic animal almost completely submerged except for his rack of antlers. I tried to count the number of points but he was swimming across the lake to the other side, and my eyes simply couldn’t keep focusing long enough to see. But it really didn’t matter. The sense of wonder I experienced was overpowering. I have lived around white tailed deer in the north most of my life and feed about 30 during the winter but I have NEVER seen a deer swimming across a lake before! When the buck reached the other side he seemed uncertain as to where he was going next. By this time my binoculars felt too heavy and I stopped watching him, just grateful to have been part of this astonishing experience.

What a day full of adventures! All in all 12 eagles were counted and this seemed like a respectable number to me. When Bruce and I drove home we saw two more of these birds sitting in a cottonwood down by the river.

Later, reflecting on the experience as a whole, I was struck by the sense of balance inherent in the sighting of the eagle, a magnificent predator of the sky, and the male buck with his beautiful rack of antlers. It seemed to me that both sky and earth had conspired to gift us with the sight of two animals, both of which are held in great esteem by Indigenous peoples and by others of us who are not.

Close up shots of Maxwell taken by Bruce Nelson

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