May 16, 2013
Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle
I arrive at the saddle below The Mushroom at 8:15am.  I am in the shade of this odd and ancient pinnacle, but the Dripping Springs are already aglow with sunrise splendor.  The sun’s low angle illuminates every crack and cranny in the huge rock wall to the west, perhaps a quarter mile as the crow flies.  Behind me the trail far below is just a ribbon of pallid light snaking across the high desert scrub.  In front of me, farther downslope, a rocky pool in the waters of Arnett Creek reflects blue sky through the greenery of new spring growth in the cottonwoods.

Yesterday’s passing cold front has brought strong west winds, strange for early morning on the desert.  A kettle of Turkey Vultures has lifted off the mountain as I climbed the trail--twenty, twenty-five, thirty--two Zone-tailed Hawks camouflaged among them.  Large dark birds are still silhouetted against every horizon, catching updrafts off the mountainsides.  The odd wind and the vulture activity presage an interesting raptor day.

I position my tripod out of the wind behind a low rock parapet and wait.    At 8:40 I am startled by flitting motion around the legs of the tripod.  A male Costa’s Hummingbird elevates up to hover ten feet from my face, full purple gorget scattering shards of amethyst and mauve into the sunlight, both of us curious about the presence of the other so high above its normal haunts.

The eagle appears, out of the sun behind me, at 8:45, eye level and close, the stuff of daydreams you know intuitively will never happen.  Startled again, I reach for the tripod.  The eagle is moving fast even into the stiff west wind, soaring without wingbeats.  In the instant it takes my earthbound brain to formulate this mystery of flight, the raptor covers the quarter mile across the canyon’s side chasm to the west wall, tips steeply, and rises up the sunlit face.  As it tops out over the lip, catching the wind’s full force, it spreads the magnificent wings to full span, kites vertically for but a moment, its back toward me, every nuanced shade of gold and brown perfectly illuminated in the perfect light, then with quick wingbeats rights itself horizontally and disappears over the top.

Awestruck, I realize I have not even touched the camera.  I have missed capturing something I’m sure I will never see again.  And I understand now how much the west wall has been blocking the brunt of the west wind.  No wonder the vultures have been loitering, kiting, banking, literally at play in the strong thermal activity created in front of the wall.  The tinkling song of a Black-throated Sparrow momentarily distracts me.  As I glance back toward the wall, a large dark bird clears the top, drops, and hurtles toward me.  On flat wings!  Eagle!

I cannot avert my eyes, but my hands find the camera.  The eagle is at eye level again, and dropping, coming faster now with the wind behind it, again riding the zephyr without wingbeats.  So close now.  The camera speaks quickly.  Wingsong envelops me like thunder, then recedes.  The bird drops below The Mushroom, sweeps the convexity of the wall behind me, banks imperceptibly, and disappears beyond the canyon’s curve.  This is the eagle’s world.  Suddenly swept into this world completely foreign to mine, knowing it saw me, knowing I have no bearing on nor status in its world, I drop to my knees.  It is moments before I move again, exhale, breathe normally.

*For a previous column about Golden Eagle, check out the following link—