Friday, April 6, 2007

Eagles on the Nest

[written April 6, 2007]

Early this morning I drove out to Lovers Leap with camera and binoculars. I had a pretty good idea of where the Golden Eagle nest ought to be, not far from the Joint Plane which drops arrow-straight to the river from the V-notch on Pinnacle Ridge. First I scanned the main Lovers Leap Spur in search of Peregrines, but saw nothing. Then I braced my arms on my knees and carefully scanned the area around the Joint Plane, just above where it drops out of view behind the nearby Spur, perhaps 800 feet above the river, across the Gap from the Leap. I saw a tangle of dead branches beneath a rock overhang, and thought maybe I had it.

But no.

Ten minutes after my arrival, without having noticed any falcons in the air, I saw a Peregrine right below me on the Spur, on what I call the Second Step. It was silhouetted against the dark shadows which held everything across the river in their thrall, everything except the highest pinnacles. It clearly knew I was there; whenever I scooted out into plain view to get a really good look, it turned its head to fix me in the gaze of its right eye. It did not leave its sunny perch.

After a time, Deren Ross of Auburn quietly arrived, with his spotting scope, and we obtained incredible views of the falcon, every feather in focus, every subtlety of color revealed. I could see sun, sky, and canyon, all reflected in its eye, for goodness' sake. Then Deren put the scope on the eagles' nest, and I was amazed, it was scarcely a hundred feet from the false nest, but I doubt anyone, using binoculars, would spot it, unless the eagles were actually arriving or leaving. An adult eagle was on the nest, turning around from time to time. I could not see egg or eaglet. I never saw the mate.

The nest was beneath a small overhang, on steep north-facing cliffs, perhaps sixty or a hundred feet east of the Joint Plane. It was made of a mass of dead grey branches, four or five feet in diameter. I expect it was lined with the club moss which coats many rock surfaces in the Gap.

Clouds of Violet-Green Swallows and White-Throated Swifts circled over the cliffs below us, and a Kestrel, or Sparrow Hawk, the smallest of our falcons, came whirring by, scarcely twenty feet away, beating its reddish wings rapidly, climbing slowly. Occasionally we heard a Canyon Wren.

Late in the afternoon I enticed my son, Greg, out to some little cliffs, hoping to see some distant eagles or falcons. We saw nothing; well, there were more or less spectacular thunder-clouds over the high country, with rain showers drifting down, and bright-glowing snowfields on Snow Mountain. We could see the Iowa Hill Canal, east of Tadpole Canyon. But no falcons, no eagles.

Greg picked up a massive pine cone, from a tall and old Digger Pine leaning over us, and gave it a toss down the cliff. We could hear it rolling down the canyon wall for quite a long time. This scared up a few Band-tailed Pigeons, who flapped around noisily before landing in various trees. One seemed to immediately leave its chosen tree, typical pigeon behavior, but at once I saw it was larger, and put my binoculars on it.

After all that time looking for distant eagles, one had been roosting in a Douglas Fir maybe two hundred feet away, the whole time we were there! It soared west, with a few lazy flaps, and then plunged out of sight, making for a rabbit, snake, or squirrel, I would guess. It looked to be a yearling, with a hint of white left in its tail.

Such were some fine experiences in the Great American Canyon.

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