Beauty and the Beast

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It’s 9:32 a.m. and I am sitting at a small mechanics shop. Miss Pickle is acting up. Not that I blame her. It is after all, the end of a season in the desert. The temperature swings this year included freezing, ice-crystal mornings, dustings of snow, followed by rain and my first sight of Tonto creek changing from an anemic trickle to impassable flood waters and then back to dry creekbed come June. Temperatures escalating over 100 degrees.  And Miss pickle has been running hard. She drove the back dirt road from A-Cross past Salt Gulch and down 20 plus miles to the Salt River inflow.  She bounced into camp crossing one of three creek crossings, she battled deer mice and weathered mud pits.

Commuting to work posed a challenge in February and early March. High water restricted crossing Tonto Creek on occasion and in the tank I drove – windows down, head hanging out to see how high the water set on the tires, hanging on to the wheel, bouncing off unseen rocks and keeping a steady speed. Praying that Miss P. would not  swallow any water. And there were days I was delighted in knowing I was on the far side, all crossings were flooded and I had no where to go.  But go I did. I would drive down to the crossings and sit on the creek and listen to the sound of water eating away at the bank, smell the cottonwoods beginning to leaf out, watch with my eagle eyes for the fleeting glance of an eagle, raven, red tail or black hawk.

I wasn’t the only one at the crossings. It was a neighborhood pastime.  Along the northeast end of the lake are communities, North Bay, Tonto Basin, Punkin Center.  When the Tonto basin flooded, all the people living within those communities were trapped on the other side. Each year they become flood victims, waiting out the flash flood by hopping on their quads and hanging out by the spectacle of water in the desert. I met many a new friend there.

Everything mechanical and tech has reached its limit this trip. The first to go was the digital camera, then the cell phone, then the iPod, then the van warning me with a sharp “shot” from the exhaust. That underlining signal foretold a grave future. A looming leak in the main fuel line and an air leak in the manifold both of which could have blown me up ( or at least the engine) cracking the new valves, seizing me and stranding me mid-highway.  Fortunatly my expedition  didn’t end there, as I resolved that issue with  a little “pickle-sence” and a lot of luck. Now, after my computer giving up I sit here with a paper journal waiting for a new fuel pump.But here I sit  between the mechanics and a beauty spa contemplating whether I should blow my own mind and get a pedicure while Miss p gets a massage….why not?

This eagle season is almost over I am in Payson, Az., 6000 ft with 80 degree temps and dreading the thought of returning to the valley heat below.  I was thinking of my schedule for the next week still having to return to the Tonto nest to verify all flights of the newly fledged eaglets were going well. Then I am off to Granite Reef, Orme and Rodeo. The final stop is the Ladders nest outside of Camp Verde up against the Cedar wilderness.  All three spots this time of year are deadly hot. But even with those inconveniences, there is something hypnotic and meaningful about staying out to watch the nestlings transform into their true nature. Most nestwatchers  are gone before they get the opportunity to see young fledglings really take flight, spreading their wings and becoming experts with air thermals and stooping and diving and barrel rolling and… gravity.

I am fascinated by the spurts of growth and persistent strengthening of their wings as they hop-flap from nest to branch and back again. Then comes the helicopter flight exercise and on those days I am captivated. I anxiously wait, getting up before dawn, as my theory is they slip away at first light. I sit with camera taking ten second videos listening only to the sounds of a summer morning as desert wakes up. I sit and focus yet, not focus, feeling for the moment when the first flight will occur. This day is certain to be the day.  I am determined to see an eagle take it’s first flight. I can say now having had a little more experience that my theory is off.  They go when they are ready, not a moment before with a few exceptions where rescue has given them a second chance. Ergo, it is important throughout the season to maintain a vigil, abiding with the elements, patient awareness of not just the nest or the nestlings, but for every layer of the ecosystem of which they and I am a part.

I have missed most first flights. But I have been lucky this year with the first fledge on May 6 at 5:47 a.m. I sat alone on the cut bank overlooking the nest, taking in what would be some of my last days at this site. And there before me was the sight I always dreamed. The young eaglet, with a clumsy take-off, circled the cottonwood trees and flew OOV (our code for out of view). Fifteen minutes later the adult female dropped a fresh fish in the nest. Sure enough the young bird flew back and made a perfect landing. Her sibling was still hop-flapping when I left Monday morning on my way to trap the adults at Lake Pleasant.

Lake Pleasant was another hard earned success story for fledging and in the pre-dawn morning I made my way up to my trapping observation point. I settled in against the cool unrelenting wind and sent my gaze to the cliff nest on the Agua Fria inflow. One chick made her debut. In the background, the morning’s first light silhouetted the cliff rising out of the inky blue lake. She took one great leap, soared down from the nest along the bluff and then with a six foot wingspan flapping in the up-currents brought her to rest at the top of the mesa.  I could almost make out the look of exilaration and puzzlement as she settled in among the rocks, looking first at her footing, grabbing a hold of the earth for her first time, looking over the edge to the water below, then ruffling each wing as she settled in, waiting for her parents to locate her. She spent five hours in that spot, barely shaded by brush hanging on the steeply sloping wall, no doubt recovering her composure after such an enormous expenditure of energy. I sat with her, watching the day go from cool to extreme hot, noting the movements of every bird, duck, vultures (that were most likely waiting for a meal-me?). I sat in silence. I sat in reverence. I sat and took in every nuance of light, of light and shadow, of light and water, of light and heat waves washing across the landscape.

I returned to Tonto after an unsuccessful trapping with two pairs of ripped out bottoms of my pants, shredded by the razor sharp limestone seats of the cliff. When I arrived at Tonto both eaglets were airborne. One more night in the hot desert air, with just a cot and the stars above, I slept deep until the sun crushed me with the heat coming over the Sierra Ancha peaks.

I moved on to  Granite Reef, Orme and Rodeo. Two of the three at Orme had fledged. One final chick gave us a bit of an adventure and now I am in Payson gearing up for the final nest. It is June, it is hot and where I am going – even hotter. I looked again, at the sign that said Spa and braved the startled looks I would get after 4 months of camp living.  A pedicure? Sounds nice. Feels even better for desert rat feet.

And Miss Pickle you ask?

She just needed a little guy time and we hit another dirt road.

 

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