June 15, 2007
Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle
Eight years ago this weekend I was hiking a well worn trail along the San Pedro River south of Sierra Vista, binoculars around my neck, telephoto lens over my shoulder, when my trailside reverie was shattered by the concussive sound, directly overhead, of rapidly displaced air.  My first thought was propane burner on a hot air balloon, but as I looked up I was stunned to see a golden eagle hovering just above the tree canopy, the sound apparently having been created by the sudden opening of its magnificent wings to their full six and a half foot span as it aborted a stoop upon some rodent in the grasslands adjacent to the riparian corridor.

There are two eagles in North America, both huge and majestic predators of similar size, but they are not closely related nor equally appreciated.  Goldens, the lesser known and less frequently seen and recognized of the two, are close relatives of the buteos, our soaring hawks.  They breed throughout Arizona in its wildest, most remote regions, primarily using cliff grottoes for nesting and wide open spaces for hunting on the wing.  Kills are made with the talons, the hooked beak used for tearing through the hide of rabbits and ground squirrels, their favored prey.

As I watched the eagle begin its slow, spiral ascent skyward, I caught movement along the periphery of my vision.  Coming toward me, northbound, resolute and silent, was a line of six people carrying knapsacks, wet bandanas around their necks.  These were neither birders nor casual hikers.

My first thought--what must they think, encountering on such a journey through this isolated space, a lone man in camouflage carrying large optics--was quickly overridden by another--eagles, the mythical embodiment of freedom, know no borders, no boundaries, no artificial constraints.

Already seen before I could melt into the trees, I stood there, waiting for them.  They slowed, coalesced briefly around their leader, then continued toward me.  I glanced upward.  The eagle was a faraway speck running down the northeast wind, already beyond our southern border.  The line passed by, five men and a woman dressed in man's clothing, with guarded smiles, neither stopping nor speaking.

I stood, unmoving, for minutes on end, transfixed by adrenaline and the empathy of shared humanity.  I stood savoring the irony of this random intersection of two species passing in opposite directions for the same reason.  The date was June 13, 1999.

I know, in this post 9/11 world, it is neither politically feasible nor correct to propose John Lennon's solution to our planet's problems, but I also know I am not the only one, the only  birder, to have wondered which is the more evolved species, the watcher or the watched.  "Imagine."

If you would seek golden eagles, visit the vast, mountain rimmed grasslands of southern Arizona.  If you're concerned about your safety there, go with a companion and always be aware of your surroundings, but go.  Nature knows no artificial boundaries.  Events beyond your control should not change who you are.  Eagles are a special species and seeing one is a special event.