An unexpected encounter with a wild eagle is an emotional experience. It is as exhilarating as the fastest roller coaster and can leave you just as breathless.
Over the years it has been my privilege to witness the reactions of many people as they have seen their very first wild eagle. The waves of facial expressions are almost always the same. The first reaction is their eyes widening, then their jaw drops momentarily before their lips begin to form a broad smile. And sometimes there are tears. You can count on the inevitable gasp for air and usually a verbal exclamation (not always G-rated), although some react with silence, too in awe for words. Never have I seen anyone react with a “ho-hum” attitude. Even those folks who are there because they were dragged along kicking and screaming at their spouse’s insistence (and I have seen a few) respond with joy. And if that eagle should pass within a few hundred feet, well then “Katie bar the door!”
But those are first encounters. What about the emotions experienced as you watch an eagle family over a period of weeks, months or even years. Whether that watching is accomplished via an online video-feed on your computer screen or through a scope or binoculars in the field, following the daily activities of a wild eagle family is an emotional journey. In either case you find yourself building a relationship with these amazing creatures. Initially you are attracted to their majestic beauty but are soon captivated by their determined fortitude and unbounded resiliency. You are drawn into their struggles for survival and you are inspired by the obvious tenderness between pair-bonded mates. They are armed with an arsenal of deadly weapons so absolutely necessary for their daily needs but are extremely gentle and caring when meeting the needs of their mate and offspring. And if that relationship is cultivated and nourished through watching a local nest in the field you can actually experience the sights, sounds and smells of their world! You are not limited by the cameras’ point of view but can sometimes find yourself part of their world with eagles in front of you, behind you and above you! You can look into their eyes as they look into yours. You can witness the graceful landings, the power they display in taking flight, the failed attempt of connecting talons to fish and the joy of a successful hunt! Emotion upon emotion in a few seconds of time.
Some people imagine that this relationship is similar to the relationship between a human and their dog, cat, horse or other pet but those relationships are based on mutual dependency. The animal needs the human for food, affection and housing while the human needs the animal for companionship and comfort. A wild eagle usually needs only to be left alone and respected. They function best when their is no human interference. We are merely observers of their relationship with each other and their environment. Their independence and freedom is a large part of what we admire about them (and perhaps a bit of what we crave for our own lives).
Our local eagles, Jim and Cindy, have exercised their independence flawlessly over the last few months. They have remained far from our camera lenses as they have faithfully carried out their parental duties. We have seen their lone eaglet only from the distance of 1/2 mile as it paced around the nest, jumped and flapped its way from branch to branch just outside of the aerie. We have seen Mom and Dad perched in a nearby tree and sometimes perched just above the nest. We have watched as they brought food to the hungry eaglet and then flew off. Lately Jim and Cindy’s visits to the nest have become fewer and farther between and have grown in brevity as they have encouraged their young one to take that first big step out of the nest.
This morning I found the nest empty.
Another emotion of eagle watching is frustration. Had the eaglet fledged? Was it successful? Statistics prove that 50% of eaglets do not survive their first year and it is estimated that 70% of those non-survivors perish as a result of that first flight. Flying is a lot easier than landing and the perils of landing are many. I watched the apparently empty nest for quite a while and searched the neighboring trees in futility hoping to glimpse the upright, tall, dark form of a resting eaglet. Finally, unsatisfied, I started for home.
As I drove eastbound on the highway that runs just north of the well field I spotted a large, dark form gliding through the trees near the nest on flat wings! Was it the eaglet? (Joy and hope are two more emotions that swell up in an instant in the heart of an eagle watcher.) One of the curses of driving on a highway is that you are not allowed to stop. Frustration. I drove about a mile before I could legally make a U-turn but when I returned the bird was nowhere to be found. I waited and watched for a while longer before returning home to this keyboard.
I am fairly confident that the bird I saw was an eaglet. I am full of joy that I have been blessed with the opportunity to be a witness of this amazing story once again!
When watching wild eagles, emotions run wild.