|Juvenile golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Jim Watson.|
So when one of AAI’s senior guides, Alasdair Turner, called me last Thursday morning and asked if I wanted to help him and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) band and radio-collar golden eagles in the northeastern corner of Washington, I actually hesitated. I would have to take off work on a moment’s notice, make the six-hour drive that night after work to meet them in the morning, and I was already planning to do some climbing in Mazama that weekend.
And then I snapped out of it. We were talking about golden eagles. Of course I wanted to help.
After wavering back and forth over the drizzle, we bushwhacked through wet brush around to the back side of the lake, where we found ourselves unexpectedly navigating canyons and talus fields beneath tall cliffs. We could see the eyrie in a formidable-looking cliff, and through our binoculars we could make out the brown lump of a young bird in the nest. His feathers were mostly developed, but we could still see wisps of white down beneath the dark brown adult plumage. The parents were absent - probably off coursing the open hillsides for ground squirrels, marmots, rabbits, and the occasional fawn. Across the way on another cliff we could see an old nest - golden eagles often build multiple nests and rotate through them.
|Chris watching Alasdair rappel into the nest. Hillary Schwirtlich.|
I can’t imagine the landscape of that eagle’s mind at that moment. Soaring powerfully and masterfully through the air - this is something only a tiny fraction of life can do, and golden eagles are made for it. And this bird was realizing that he could fly and feeling how it felt to fly for the first time in his life. It’s not something I will soon forget.
|Jim Watson directing the group. Hillary Schwirtlich.|
|Jim Watson banding the eagle with Anne Marie's help. Hillary Schwirtlich.|
After the data was collected, Alasdair climbed back into the nest and replaced the bird, and we hiked out. Alasdair, Jim, Chris and I then headed to another eyrie farther west in a drier part of the state, where we repeated the process, dodging cactus and rattlesnakes on the way. Rappelling into the nest was more complicated this time, and Alasdair had to deal with less-than-ideal anchor placement, a nest that required some maneuvering to get into, and loose rock at the top. It was a situation, he said, not many climbers would feel comfortable in. Once again, the bird jumped and landed on a talus field below, and Alasdair and Chris chased him down.
|At the second site. Two nests in the middle of this picture. Jim Watson.|
|The wingspan of an adult golden eagle can reach 6 - 7.5 feet. This guy still has some growing to do. Jim Watson.|
One thing is for sure - if I was on the fence before, but I am definitely a bird nerd now.
|The author having a really, really good day.|