Eaglewatch – Ladders

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June 2007

I am in the final days of being out alone, all the other nestwatchers are gone -off to their homelands or some field work in cooler climes. I am checking the last eagle nest on the Verde River, near the Cedar Bench Wilderness.

eagles camp verde - 01

Miss Pickle sits in a precarious slant with one wheel 2 feet below the graded dirt road, making it impossible to seek sleep in any comfortable position. A ditch – a failed back-up plan has stranded me. The sun still bears down. Even though sunset is 30 minutes out, the temperature is hovering somewhere above 110. I know there is no one out here on this stretch of road, 13 miles in from the Camp Verde and possibly no vehicles to come for 4 or 5 days. A hike out is not an option I look forward to.

There has to be another way. Thanks to an army shovel last year’s nest-watchers left behind, I start digging and carve the drop-off to a more pleasing angle. I spin- out, the smell of burning rubber wafting among the juniper.  I think back to Alaska, being stuck in the snow and Utah in the red rocks and then again, New Mexico when I buried my vehicle up to its axle in a sand pit.  I wonder if I have learned anything since then. Apparently, I haven’t learned to stay off the “roads less traveled”. Unlike snow, sand in the desert has no pavement or purchase beneath it. I am royally stuck.

These are the moments when tears come but I find I am lacking in body moisture to spare. I am hot and exhausted and my big green tank is too, much for me to push. After releasing some air from the tire, with no further success, I considered tying a rope to the front end to create some sort of winch.  This proved to be a faulty concept considering there were no trees of any size, much less any way I could think of rigging up the front tires – which don’t spin- to act as the winch. I sit down in the dirt once again. It’s now shadow time and the temperature has dropped by 2 degrees.  Stuck seems to be the only thing I have accomplished.

The best solution is always a  little  bit of ingenuity and sweat and I had and plenty of sweat, tho my brain cells were on the verge of a slow boil.

What I need is something solid under the tire, something to allow the tires to gain some purchase.  Eureka! – if I put flat rocks in place to create a stone ramp, I might have a chance. I dig out a spot for the jack and gingerly raise the left side of the van to create clearance under the tires. I can only tell you how dicey this feels as I jack up several tons of metal,  jack creaking ,stones cracking and sand base crumbling.  As fast as I can, I slide large flat rocks under the tire and in the path of extraction.

The day turned to dusk with dark just moments away. I looked up and prayed to the first stars in the night sky. In this – a dilemma (that shows no mercy),  I recognize there is no better time  than now to attempt anything in this life. It was just me and the pickle I am in. I got behind the wheel, gave Miss Pickle a little pat on the dash, said, “one more time Miss P. “, turned the ignition, set the gear, punched the gas and released the clutch.

If ever there is a good time to be present…to be in the now.

The gear engaged, Miss P. lurched, the rear wheels spun, black smoke of melting tires and… I was air-born! The front tires and Pickle’s nose were pointed starward. Then like a bucking horse, she leapt out of the ditch, propelled forward and landed less than graceful on all fours. Needless to say, objects in motion remain in motion, including me and every loose item, turned projectile, in the van. To the cacophony of metal I added a Yee-Haw!, as I gripped the wheel trying to add some control to my (em)motion. I laughed my ass off as soon as I was sure both me and the van were not mortally injured.

I sit after the sunset scramble under the light of the last waning, full moon of my trip, illuminating the landscape of rolling hills dotted with junipers and cactus.  Exhausted I call a friend in Tucson who wants to know when I am coming home. I honestly can’t tell her. Though I am tired and hot and not looking forward to a 6 mile hike each day to check on the last eaglets, I also, have no desire to return, and am very unsure if I am very sane about the whole situation. I figured I would know when it was time, when it felt right…without a shred of doubt.

The next morning I hike out to the cliff at 4:30 a.m. in hopes of getting back to my shelter by the 10 a.m. heat wave. There at the cliff nest, I find no birds. They have slipped away overnight. When an eagle flies, it is important for us to know that it can actually take wing from the ground up – to avoid predators – so our job is to spend a few days observing their flights. With the high temperatures and extreme terrain, my plan had to be laid out to avoid the heat each day. That day, I know the only search I can do is visual from my eerie. I walk the edge of the bluff, scoping up and down-river and focusing in on all the vegetation 200 feet below, along the river’s edge. In this heat, every critter seeks shade and if I was an eagle, a sweet spot on the edge of riffles would be my choice. A family of otters playfully move up stream and provide me with a sense of vicarious cooling as they jump and splash from rock to pool… from pool to rock. My water will hold out for 3 hours before it is imperative to hike back.

In the early days of flight and for approximately 45 days into mid-summer, the eaglets will spend their days perched in the shade, exercising daily by taking short flights and curiously and voraciously learning the differences between edible and non-edible prey. The adults remain nearby. The eaglets watch, as the parent stoops on a  fish. Now that the river shallows in the extreme heat, the fish struggle in the riffles between pools. The fledglings watch as the adult strikes once, twice and lands a 20-inch catfish on the sandbar. This daily routine continues until one day, when the eaglets are strong enough, they are called to migrate north. And they simply go on their way.

Sitting and being patient is a lesson well learned in eagle watching. Knowing that any action other than stillness – most often results in a waste of energy, a futile attempt at controlling an environment we have literally no control over.  Within my field of vision is the river below, the rough vertical cliffs dropping two hundred feet, the shallow rapids that are home to the family of otters, the White-throated Swifts that flit and soar 5 feet from my face, the clear sky stretching into the horizon, the Mogollon Rim and the peak of Mt. Humphrey rising over the plateau 70 miles away … not a soul in sight … just me… in an area of several square miles or more. How many times do we ever get the chance to be that alone?

Time runs differently when we no longer adjust our lives to hands on a watch face. The sky and shadows tell us where and when to go. The animals know this. The red ants know this and inform me of the onslaught of heat as they head to the center of the earth. Each morning they scurry about the cliff top, traveling hundreds of yards in search for food, frantically gathering grass seeds before the heat of mid-morning forces them back underground. They found my sunflower seeds and as I watched, those little ol’ ants carried whole seeds away from my perch. I follow one 200 yards away to the fortress. They never give up, sometimes they back track – but most often they keep a steady course, up and over the rocks in their path, not even seeing the clear space between the rocks, six inches from their march. I take this lesson to heart – not to get so myopic and unwittingly forge ahead, but perhaps taking a pause now and then to survey the landscape, to look at the big picture and realize that many paths exist that will bring us home.

All of this and more in these few hours of stillness. Meantime, I continue my search along the cliff face. I am convinced that a shadow against the opposing cliff is an eaglet precariously perched on a narrow ledge. I strain my eyes trying to ascertain any movement. The heat waves of the sun trick my eyes into believing there is movement, a slight shifting of a wing, a turn of the head. Eagles can sit still for hours on end, conserving their energy for one opportune moment.

I begin to plot the removal of all barrel cactus within range of the nest! Convinced, as I was that the shadow is an eaglet, I discover in the shifting sun that I am staring at  a barrel cactus that is clinging to the wall.  Mind you, this is not the first time I made that mistake. I spent three hours at Lake Pleasant watching a barrel cactus and taking field notes on its movements only weeks before!

Back to the scanning – convinced that two or three more days will be necessary to confirm the eagles are flying. Already, I had decided that the Starbucks on I-17 I passed miles back was worth the drive. That and to fill a cooler full of pure ice now fills my brain as the heat waves shimmer making it almost impossible to scope any distance.

Just as I am preparing to pack up for the day – an adult eagle flies into view. She has been perched across the canyon from me all this time, hidden behind a pinnacle. I grab my binoculars and follow her flight downstream, where with the naked eye; she would have been lost to view. She perches a kilometer away, fading into the landscape on a rock outcropping 100 feet above the river. Glued to the spot with my binocs, I make a mental note of the features surrounding her. At some point I will have to look away and I want to be able to go back to her.  Parents in any species are fairly predictable around their young. When an eagle flies for the first time, the adults will follow them. Though they cannot help the youngster, or support their wings, they will watch as the eaglet, with its over-sized feathers clumsily flap and twist and turn in the sky. Getting air is one thing, landing is another! I have watched young eagles over-estimate their power and with no finesse, crash past the nest and fall like a stone to the earth below. The adults are usually within eye-shot. They’ll cock their heads, wait for the final movement of the eaglet and then swoop down beside them. Much like any caring parent, they will assess the situation and stand by the young one, encouraging them to shade, to flight or to rest.

My search continues along the river’s edge. Where there is an adult, there must be young.  I catch the flicker of a dark, large shadow below and downstream. Is it a vulture? Is it a raven? It is an eaglet! How silly can I be, convinced that a barrel cactus is an eagle? For when you see and eagle, there is no doubt – it is an eagle! The fledgling is flying, up and over the cottonwoods bending in the breeze along the river.  He apparently saw the parent and took wing to fly nearer. He circles and lands along the shore. A perfect landing!  O.K. – a perfect landing for a gangling teenager still getting used to appendages that 12 weeks prior were only featherless wing buds!  Another mass of wings and sleek black is flying in the sky now heading upstream to join its sibling.

In this one moment I know what I have to do. In this one moment my voice that has been silent all morning, rises up and I say to the world of the desert I have spent the past four months living with – “It is time to go home.” I stand on the edge enjoying the beauty of the birds and the canyon. I take one last panoramic snapshot in my mind and sing the James Taylor lullaby I sang most every night to the eagles as I headed back to camp.

Another Eagle season has come to a close. I am home.

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