August 19, 2011
Note: an earlier version of this column appeared in a recent issue of the Chambersburg (Pa.) Public Opinion
I wasn’t thinking about bald eagles that morning.
Coffee. I was thinking about coffee.
I stood in front of the big windows in my bedroom. They look out over the impoundment area upstream of an old dam on Marsh Creek in Adams County, a little south of Gettysburg. I was doing nothing more dynamic than dragging my suspenders up over my shoulder, thinking about my schedule for the day, when I saw it.
A bald eagle. Not a photo or a painting or a patch on a motorcycle jacket, but the real thing.
Heading straight for the window.
They’re coming back, you know.
A in the early 1980s, experts only managed to locate three nests in the whole state.
But this June, the state wildlife folks announced that Pennsylvania is now home to 203 bald eagle nests in 50 counties. Not exactly a throng, but it’s a start.
And now there are 204 nests in 51 counties, and that most recent nest is just west, over the mountain Franklin County, according to Dale Gearhart, of the Conococheague Audubon.
Dale told me that he’s been watching a nest just outside of Greencastle, in a sycamore along the Conococheague.
The eagles were in the sycamore, not Dale.
The pair of eaglets is completely fledged now, though lacking the white head feathers that distinguish the species.
Sly Dale kept the secret for awhile, not wanting thundering herds of the curious to come smashing and cracking through the area for a peek before the young’uns were older. There’s nothing the average person likes to do more than love nature to death by going to look at it in droves. It makes me think of those people who don’t understand what’s wrong with the idea of putting roads through a designated wilderness area so they can go see it.
Anyway, back to the eagles.
On the morning the eagle buzzed my bedroom, I didn’t even think about my camera, not at first.
To be honest, I didn’t think at all.
And then I was sure the eagle was going to fly through the glass and into my bedroom.
But it turned that stunning head to its left, and peeled away to follow that gaze in a steep bank that gave me a clear view of that enormous wingspan, at least four feet from tip to tip, maybe more.
I remembered the camera right after I remembered to start breathing again.
I ran out on the deck, and the camera caught a few images of the bird perched on a branch across the creek, 200 feet, maybe further, a bit more than the lens was capable of handling well. On the computer screen, the eagle looked like a portrait in colored chalk.
Even so, I kept the photos for a couple of years, until I lost them in a hard-drive meltdown a couple of months ago. They weren’t great photos, but I was proud of them.
At its closest, the eagle was perhaps 30 feet away, close enough to hear the air whisper through its primary feathers, had there not been a window between us. It was a little bit like a miracle.
The bald eagle as a symbol has been through the wringer, somewhat. In the turmoil of the 60s, it took a beating. Those in opposition to the war in Vietnam were fond of pointing out that in times of great stress, the eagle will eat its own young, a metaphorical coincidence that seemed fitting, given the mood of the time.
The eagle also steals prey from lesser birds, and innocent enough fact in the red-in-tooth-and-claw real world, but a little awkward for a national symbol, or so some of us thought. Famously, Benjamin Franklin himself, no less, wanted our national bird to be a turkey, which is only found in the New World.
I can only imagine what a field day the editorial cartoonists would have had with a turkey.
So attached was I to the bald eagle as a symbol for the U.S., that the first time I saw one in the flesh — in Nova Scotia — my first reaction was “what’s it doing HERE?”
But it wasn’t only as a symbol that the bald eagle has had a rough go of it. The near-disappearance of our national bird because of hunting and environmental poisoning is well-known.
Recent years have brought better tidings, despite ongoing threats from idiots who just had to kill one, to chemical companies who were dragged kicking and screaming to more responsible insecticides and herbicides.
When the state announced that Pennsylvania had passed the 200-nest milestone, one of the game commission hotshots said folks have a better chance of spotting a bald eagle here than they have since the Civil War, almost 150 years ago.
That spring on Marsh Creek belonged to the eagles. Yes, plural. A few days after the first sighting, a pair of them swooped and glided over the pond, or sat grandly in the trees. They fished, though never caught anything the few times I saw them. Maybe that’s why they didn’t hang around. No nest for Marsh Creek.
I hope I see them again. That I saw them at all, I think, says something good about us, all of us, in that we had the awareness and the will, to take enough notice of our erosion of the natural world to bring the eagle back from the brink.
We The People bore down on the effort to save the bald eagle because of the bald eagle’s emotional link to our patriotic feelings. It would be great if we would put the same passion into saving creatures other than the ones we have decided are noble, or precious. But we’re not there yet.
Even so, those few moments watching those magnificent birds carving the air just outside my window left me breathless and full of wonder.