Sundays with eagles

Last Sunday morning I joined a group that met at the reservoir a few miles outside of town to watch for raptors. Since moving to Boulder a couple years ago I’ve become a fan of winter birding. Raptors abound, and the bare trees make perching birds visible a mile away. When I drove up I heard that a bald eagle had been sitting in the tree at the water’s edge a few minutes before. Darn! I had just missed it. The morning’s hike yielded some spectacular views of red-tail hawks and a long-shot view of a great horned owl napping in a tree under the morning sun, but no eagles.

Golden Eagle by Tony Hisgett, Flickr Creative Commons License

Golden Eagle by Tony Hisgett, Flickr Creative Commons License

At the end of the hike I drove a few miles away to Boulder Creek, where a prairie dog colony thrives. Healthy prairie dog colonies are crucial to support raptor populations–which means that if you want to see raptors, it pays to head for the prairie dogs.

I had hiked less than a quarter mile in from the road when I was startled to see great dark wings rising from the center of the prairie dog colony. There are no wings that size except the wings of eagles. The bird rose and rose, heading back toward the road, where it perched finally atop an immense utility pole. Through my binoculars I could clearly see the outline of a golden eagle–a small head at the end of a tiny, slender neck on top of a hulking, dark brown body with bushy legs. I could even see something limp dangling from one talon. Lunch!

I was thrilled to see this much of the eagle–and then startled again when the eagle rose from the pole and began heading my way. I dropped my binoculars to check through the filter of tree branches: yes, the eagle was flying directly toward me! I could only stare open-mouthed as it passed about twenty yards away, its great, graceful wings beating in a slow whoosh-whoosh–a sound I’d never before been close enough to hear. I pivoted to watch as it glided to rest atop another utility pole a short distance away. Could I believe what I had just seen? The eagle had passed in a large U, as if showing off a close-up view. I picked up my binoculars again and watched as the eagle, now facing away, begin tearing slowly and leisurely at its meal.

I was sure nothing could top last Sunday’s show–until today. Recalling the bald eagle I’d missed last Sunday, this morning I headed for the reservoir again. With Tim driving, I was free to scan the trees for large dark shapes. The morning was overcast and chilly–great for birding if you’re wearing enough layers because the sun won’t get in your eyes and the raptors will be flying lower than usual, under the clouds, so they can monitor the ground.

We turned in at the reservoir, and I grabbed my binoculars to take in a dark shape in a tree at the water’s edge. Was it a hawk or something bigger? We turned toward the shore and parked by the side of the road. A white head! A huge body! It was indeed a bald eagle.

Climbing out of the car with our binoculars, we walked slowly toward the water. The eagle seemed unconcerned about us, its bushy white head pivoting to glance at us, then stare again out over the water. While golden eagles prey on prairie dogs, bald eagles prefer fish or, if fish aren’t available, ducks or small birds. This one appeared to be waiting for a fishy breakfast.

We moved ever closer, hardly daring to breathe, wondering how close we could get before the great wings lifted away. Suddenly a car appeared on the road, headed straight down to the water’s edge, and parked nearly under the tree. A woman and two large black dogs piled out, the dogs bounding off happily. Unconcerned, the eagle watched quietly. We knew then we were in for a show.

We walked down to the shore and sat on a picnic table about fifty yards away from the eagle. The bird, facing our way, provided a spectacular view. Through binoculars we could take in every detail–the mottled dark brown feathers on its belly, the dusting of gold-colored ones on its chest, the yellow claws with ferociously long, black, hooked talons at the ends, the equally yellow beak with its fierce hook at the end, the piercing eyes, and the bushy white feathers sweeping back from its eyes in–I kid you not–a mullet.

from WeForAnimals.com

from WeForAnimals.com

We had time to absorb every detail for the eagle remained perched in the tree, its head swiveling now toward us, now toward the water, then back toward the road. Minutes passed. The black dogs bounded back toward their car, and they and the woman drove away. Over and over I raised my binoculars and stared until my arms tired, then lowered them again, trying to absorb the fact that we were hanging out with a bald eagle. I looked out over the water, wondering what the eagle could see with its vision almost four times as good as a human’s. Fishing this morning apparently was not good, for the eagle remained seated quietly on its branch.

About a half hour passed. Our fingers and toes were getting cold. Reluctantly we murmured good-byes with our thanks and headed back across the parking lot. Turning for one last look, I watched the eagle shuffle, hesitate, then lift off the tree, flapping slowly and steadily the other direction, across the lake and away. We watched wordlessly as the great black wingspan receded, disappearing finally into the haze.

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3 Responses to Sundays with eagles

  1. Mandy says:March 2, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Bald eagles are quite breathtaking to see – I’ve seen them flying over the Diagonal – it’s hard to watch and drive at the same time! Loved your description.

  2. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:March 2, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    Mandy, I’m sure appreciating your regular contributions here. Thanks!!

  3. Lisa says:March 3, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Nice. Thanks.