Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Waiting for Eagles

In January this year, I gave a talk called "Writing Outside: Crafting Prose In and About Nature" to kick off the Writers On Location seminar series at Finlandia University. This post is an edited excerpt from that talk.

Back in 1990, I paired up with nature photographer Don Jackson to do an outdoor story about Klamath Basin. The basin straddles the Oregon-California border and includes six different wildlife refuges as well as numerous lakes and wetlands within its borders. It’s an internationally famous birding spot along the Pacific Flyway, visited by large flocks of migratory waterfowl during spring and fall migrations. Klamath Basin also supports the largest overwintering population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, usually with hundreds -- and some winters more than 1,000 -- eagles counted at peak.

As a photographer with an affinity for birds, Don Jackson is someone who loves Klamath Basin. When we became friends and he learned I was a writer, he suggested we team up to do an article about the area’s overwintering eagles.

I had never been to Klamath Basin, but Don talked so enthusiastically about it I was keen to go. We decided to drive up in his van – about a five-hour trip from where we both lived at that time, in Santa Rosa, California. He'd haul along his camera gear, I'd take notebooks, and we’d stalk eagles with lens and pens.

To get close-ups of eagles, Don wanted to use one of the bird blinds maintained by the refuges for photographers. Using this blind meant getting up early enough to hike for an hour up a steep rocky ridge to get ourselves hidden before eagles started flying up-basin at dawn. Once in the blind, we would have to sit quietly for hours in freezing weather and cramped quarters, hoping for eagles to show. This image shows the view from the blind.

The experience promised to be miserable – but also, we hoped, unforgettable. My job was to capture in words why someone else might want to do this, since ultimately we aimed to sell a travel article to our regional newspaper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. I spent my time up on the ridge scribbling the following impressions as we waited for eagles.

My toes have never felt so numb. My lips cannot move quickly enough to shape the words I want to say. The clock in the dashboard reads 6:15 a.m. The thermometer on the door of Don’s van says it's minus 10 degrees. It's dark outside, and where we are the fog obscures our surroundings so totally we can barely see a few feet.

Why are we here?

This morning we're here in search of bald eagles. We're on Hill Road, a pocked gravel route that runs along the base of Sheepy Ridge in Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. We’re shivering in this van because this region is home to the largest wintering population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, and we want to see eagles. More specifically, Don wants to photograph them, I want to write about seeing them at close range, and if we can make it up to a blind near the ridgetop by sunrise, we'll have a good chance of doing both.

Gathering our energy, we venture out of the van, boots crunching lightly on the snow-dusted gravel. We leave our permit from Refuge headquarters on the dash and pull out our packs. They're loaded with 50 or 60 pounds of camera gear plus as much other stuff as we can carry to help us keep warm as we sit waiting for eagles to land near us in the blind.

Shouldering our packs, we begin the climb. Although we'll be going up only a few hundred feet, the ridge is steep and we'll spend the better part of an hour reaching our destination.
Turns out we're here during a cold snap.

We hadn't planned it that way; phoning the refuge a few days before our planned departure date, Don had learned that a thaw was in progress. Sounded good to me: that meant more open water and more waterfowl activity at the refuges. The thaw also meant that sitting still for a full day in an outdoor bird blind wouldn't be quite so challenging.

But as luck would have it, an Arctic cold front met us just as we arrived in this mostly forgotten northeast corner of California.
An uneven layer of new dry snow now coats the slope in front of us, sometimes a foot deep, sometimes only a scant dusting atop the volcanic rocks below. Weeds and brush poke out from under the white blanket, icicles dripping from their higher branches.

Daylight, only a vague pink glow over the horizon behind us as we start out, blooms more quickly than we expect. This is a hard climb, and with each of us carrying so much gear, we stop frequently to catch our breath.

We are perhaps 2/3 of the way up the slope when we spot our first eagles of the day. Sometimes individually, sometimes in loose-knit groups of two or three, they fly over us, coming from behind the ridge and gliding out for a morning feed on the flat expanses of Tule Lake.

But they’re a bit early, or we’re a bit late. We don't want too many eagles to spot us on the open slope, before we're under cover of the blind. Their sharp eyes catch irregularities in their natural world, and they'll give us a wide berth if they see we've invaded their territory. We want to reach the blind as soon as possible; refuge headquarters wants us in there, too, requiring that anyone using the blinds be in them by 7:00 a.m. to minimize disturbance of the birds.

“Run!” says Don, and so, though we're already sweaty and winded, we hasten our stride.

When we finally reach the blind, drained but relieved to be there, the sun has emerged almost completely from behind the mountains east of Tule Lake. As we get set up, there are distant eagles on the frozen lake, but none close by.
We settle down to wait for closer shots. We wait. And wait. We begin to wonder if our late arrival ruined our chances for close encounters with eagles this day. I scribble notes, and in between scribbles, I sip tea and struggle to stay warm.

About mid-day Don sees the eagles on the lake begin to scatter. Morning feeding may be over, he thinks, and perhaps a few of the big birds will fly in our direction. Sure enough, within half an hour the eagles begin to fly south along the ridge, some just over us.

Don's eyes are wide, watchful and at full alert, his body tense with anticipation behind the camera. "Incoming!" he hisses, following a bird's progress through his viewfinder. “Immature eagle at 40 feet! At 30 feet! Will it land? It’s landing!”

And then his shutter is clicking, clicking, clicking.

Some eagles fly so close – cruising by within just a few feet of us -- that we can hear the whistle-stroke of their broad wings through the air. Don alternates between keeping quiet and erupting with excited whispers. "We've got another one coming right toward us. Right on track, eye-level. Here it is – hold still – okay, don't move!"

The motor-driven shutter goes off again and again and again. After each big bird goes by I realize I've been holding my breath and let it out in a whoosh.

Don runs out of film.

Next post: "Chasing Swans"

All photos copyright Don Jackson and used courtesy of Don Jackson Photography


Fred said...

Katie, Don't know if I ever told you this story, but years ago I was hiking in the Bighorn Mts. in Wyoming, and I managed somehow to surprise a bald eagle while rounding the corner of a large bolder. He/she took off and flew no more than 2 ft. over my head and I fell backwards and slid down a patch of snow, luckily uninjured. I felt, saw and heard those wings, and I can still remember the shock and awe, if you will.

Patricia Lichen said...

Ooooh, that sounded so cold (and I do hate to be cold!) But what a payoff! What a grand adventure--thanks for sharing it!

Come visit my blog when you have a chance: www.patriciaklichen.com