Sunday, April 30, 2017

Bird of Jove

A dark shadow swooped down over the roadway, banked left and headed diagonally toward the river.

I craned to see what beast of the air had cast such a huge shadow over my afternoon commute.

Hugging the steering wheel and peering up through the top-most part of my windshield, I could see its distinctive white head and curved yellow beak.

I held my breath, not for a moment thinking about what perils would have befallen me had there been oncoming traffic.

There was no doubt. I had just seen a bald eagle.

A. Real. Bald. Eagle!

This wasn't a Muppet named “Sam” giving political commentary, or a gimpy-winged bird of Jove gripping the arm of a wildlife rehabilitator at a children's library event. This was a living, breathing, soaring, adult raptor hunting in my neighborhood.

And I'd never seen one in the flesh and feather before.

To say I was excited would be an understatement.

I sped home, ran in the house and regaled the first person I saw with a dramatic rendition of all the events leading up to this moment. … Starting from the late 1960s when only a single active pair remained of the entire state's bald eagle population.

Eyes glazed over as I meandered around a century of eagle history (thanks to Google and the NYS Bald Eagle Conservation Plan website) and recounted the ravages of industrial pollution and not-yet-banned pesticides on these poor birds' unviable eggs.

Weeks later, I was still talking about the majestic bird soaring over the highway when I noticed the three-foot hawk at the top of our backyard's tallest tree.

“That's not a hawk,” said my son, using a birding app on my phone and his own eagle eye. “You might want to get your camera.”

Which, I did. And through the longest lens, I could see its tell-tale white head and curved yellow beak.

As I crept closer to base of the tree, it craned its head to look at me.

And then it flew off.

It was magical and a little melancholy now that he (or she) was gone.

I began to fill the space of its absence by searching page after virtual page of eagle facts and trivia.

No one batted an eye as I read from my fistfulls of printouts: “Did you know bald eagles were one of the original species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973?”

In fact, just then, I think my oldest kid yawned.

“Did you know that the state set up a kind of foster program for eagles? They got eaglets from other states and gave them to the pair to raise?

And then she made the universal sign of teenage ennui: she rolled her eyes.

I thought for a moment about sending her to be fostered by eagles, but plodded on with my lecture:

“And while this proved successful, the mortality rate of the juvenile birds being high, and the fertility of the foster parent pair being non-existent, conservationists tried a falconry 'hack' that involved hand raising older nestlings and releasing them into the wild once they could fly. And I assume there was also a lot of breath-holding and agnostic prayers that the juvenile eagles would survive and thrive.”

My youngest kid was shaking his head.

“I can Google, too, you know,” he said with a hint of superiority. “Says here: 'The experiment worked. By 1980, hacking helped reestablish the first breeding pair of natural reproducing bald eagles. By 1988 the state had reached its goal of 10 nesting pairs. ... In 2010 New York had 173 breeding pairs which fledged 244 young. Each year, New York's bald eagles fledge about 10 percent more young eagles than the year before'.

“Hey! Maybe those 'ginormous hawks' you've seen aren't hawks after all.”

For a moment I thought I had managed to reel the boy into my obsession.

But then he whistled with fiendish glee.

“Now THIS is what I was looking for! It says there's a $20,000.00 fine for harassing eagles. … I'd be careful tip-toeing up to them if I were you. You might be tossing away my college fund for a closeup.”


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