ery early morning walk at Quabbin Reservoir. Avoiding human contact. Killing time. Watching the water drops hang suspended from the dendrite like tips of the branches. Watching the fog hover at ground level, lurking like a burglar. Ravens nest in the rock ledges of the mountain side along the road. I saw a raven flying above me, several juncos, and bluebirds. There were bluebirds on the short rock walls along the walk, sitting in a perfect array, like blue smudged goblets at a banquet table. They kept a certain distance from me as I approached. When I would get that special distance that must be maintained for comfortable bluebird human interaction, the bluebird closest to me would fly past his bird buds to the end of the line sitting on the rock wall. Each bird peeled off in its turn, maintaining the appropriate distance and exchanging leaders like a pace line in a bike road race. I completely approve of this game. I myself need the appropriate amount of distance maintained.
As I continued on my walk, I saw a guy peering through binoculars trained on something along the far shore. There was a spotting scope set up nearby. I stood by quietly, not wanting to distract him and knowing that fatigue would set in at some point and he would take down the binoculars to rest his arms. I wished that I had brought my binoculars, so I could look less like a stalking weirdo and more like a birding weirdo. I find people peering through binocualrs absolutely irresistable, even if it turns out, as it usually does, that the secret lives they are intersted in belong to those more likely to become clothes than to wear them. When he put his binoculars down, he gave me a friendly glance. He had binoculars but also slung from his neck was a camera with a lens the size of an elephant’s trunk.
He was watching a bird struggle with carrying a large limb to fortify an existing nest. He told me about the different nests in Quabbin, four of them scattered through the reservoir.
“So that means there are four pairs of nesting eagles,” I stated unsure, “they only build one nest.” This came out as a stated question. “They only build one nest,” he said.
I asked about the fishing habits of eagles. He told me that eagles average eight unsuccessful attempts before making a successful strike, which surprised me. In the world of baseball, that would be a paltry .125 batting averge. Eagles would have to sit on the bench. Very good major league hitters are only successful about a third of the time, which would be an average of .333. Eagles would probably make the argument that fishing without a hook or a line or a net is even more difficult than hitting a major league fast ball. Plus ideally they persist until they’ve achieved about a pound of fish, which means their game can last all day.
My friend did not sprinkle his facts with baseball analogies. He didn’t need to because he knows alot about eagles. He’s been watching the ones at Quabbin for two years and taking pictures of them; building nests, flying, catching fish, having confrontations with osprey, just hanging out perched on trees. Over this time, he has compiled enough pictures to make a prototype for a book, which he showed me. The book was slightly larger than a pocket field guide. The pictures were glossy and the mien professional. It was beautiful. I went through each picture without feeling a bit awkward, which struck me as unusual. I can hit the wall early viewing photos of family vacations.
A series of pictures showed the birds in flight, but with their tails used as rudders to guide them toward a landing or prey.
“Wow, this is great how you’ve captured how they use their tail feathers for positioning.”
He just smiled. He told me that the bird had been fishing unsuccessfully for about an hour and the photo depicted yet another unsuccessful attempt. He was so unself conscious and calm about sharing his pictures. My gusto seemed to amuse him. Is this equanimity? I always wondered what that would look like.
One picture showed a bird in the gray brown branches of a winter tree.
“This one is why I love bird watching. You are walking along on a gray day and you see a silhouette in a tree, a dark silhouette. And you take your binoculars to your eyes and you see color, just brightness and color in your lens. The colors pop. A glimpse of white or gold or red. It is a thrill to see the colors. You have caught that here.”
This made him smile, too. And he told me where he saw the bird. And how it had been snowy, but the snow wasn’t on the trees. I told him about my trips to see eagles follow migrating flocks of snow geese and Canadian geese in Rulo, Nebraska. Flocks of hundreds of thousands followed by fifty or sixty eagles. The eagles would cull out the old and the sick. You could see thirteen eagles in a single tree on the refuge during the eagle days. I took my mom and dad when they came to visit me in Kansas City, Missouri. My dad stayed in the car, hating the cold, but my mom and I walked around the reservoir pointing at eagles everywhere.
I looked at the whole book. And then he showed me more pictures encased in plastic pages in a three ringed binder. One picture had such incredible detail of the claws that you could see the points at the end of the talons and the horizontal lines in the flesh of the foot.
“Beautiful detail of the talons.”
And he told me about the day he took the photo, how the bird was flying so close over his head, he could almost touch it. I think he probably wanted to touch it. He had titled his book, “Noble American Bird” or something like that. I think the book needs a new title.
I looked at him, this guy wearing fatigues and tattoos and a weathered look. I looked at him and said, “This is great. This is a love affair with the eagle.” “That’s it exactly,” he said. He gave me his card as I was leaving. I will buy the book when it comes out. I love a good love story.