Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Look of Eagles

Tuesday June 12 2007

Said Carol, as we were standing with our horses on the side of a steep hill in the middle of the Owyhee high desert foothills, “Some people say their Arabians have the Look of Eagles. We take our Arabians to look for eagles.” We were accompanying Karen again on another golden eagle quest on horseback. A colleague of Karen's observed this nest last week, and saw one baby on the nest, and it was possible there was another baby. It's about time for the babies to fledge – leave the nest – so they are being monitored.

We'd headed out northwest from Murphy, Idaho, along jeep roads and washes, winding between little hills and little mountains with cliff faces. As expected the eagle pair in this territory has several alternate nests; at least two of the nests are smack in the middle of heavily trafficked motorcycle and ATV trails. We went during the week for this reason – it would be impossible to get to on horseback for running into too many vehicles, and, we certainly didn't need attention called to the eagles' nest what with all the mechanical commotion they live above anyway. We only saw 3 motorcycle riders – just as we turned off a road to cross-country – but boy oh boy did we encounter plenty of their remains: whoop-de-doos. Some places they were awful. Karen posed the question – what do you do? Close certain sections? Come and plow them flat? The bike and ATV riders don't like them either, so they make new parallel trails, which eventually become whoop-de-doos. They're hell on horses, and if you try to create a horse trail, the bikes find those too because they're nice and smooth – for a while.

As soon as the cliff with the nest came into view, it was obvious it was or had been occupied this season – lots of whitewash. The nest – which turned out to be two nests, one right above the other, like a penthouse condo with an upstairs balcony – blended right into the cliff, and it was hard to see without binoculars unless you were really paying attention, which hopefully most of the motorbikers aren't. However, this site as been monitored for years, so the eagles have obviously adapted to the environment. We stopped across a draw, looking up at an angle at the nest – we couldn't get high enough to look into or look evenly at it. Even with binoculars, the nest was naturally well camouflaged.

Karen brought her spotting scope and set that up; she concentrated on the lower nest that had “decoration” on it - fresh sage greenery layered on top, which is a good sign of occupation. It may have something to do with courtship rituals, also. As Karen looked at the nest, she said, “I see a brown thing, but I can't tell if it's a bird, or a rock behind the nest on the cliff. I don't think it's dark enough for a baby eagle.” I looked in the scope, and wasn't sure either, “Looks more like a rock to me.” We decided to climb higher on the hillside we were on, leading our horses, trying a little different angle and a bit more height. Karen set up the scope and looked again, sat there a while, waited, and “Wait! I think it IS an eagle! I think I saw its eyelid move! But then, if you look at a nest long enough you kind of will what you want to see and your imagination takes over.”

I took my turn at the scope again, and I was looking at the same brown rock from a different angle... but wait, “I think I see feathers! Wing feathers, to the left.” “Yes!” “And that's its head, to the right. Yes – it blinked!! It IS an eagle!” Carol took her turn, “Yeah! I saw it blink!”

I asked if it could have been an adult, but Karen said no, an adult would not have been sitting flat on the nest like that. “The adults are around though, they've seen us by now, and have disappeared.” Usually, adult golden eagles will stay away from their nest when people are obviously around. Karen said that the nests are considered successful when the young reach 52 days of age, which is 80% of the average age that they leave the nest, and there are different criteria used to determine how old they are, if the exact date of egg-laying hasn't been observed. Since we didn't get a good look at this young one, that couldn't be determined right now.

We took turns looking at the nest, hoping the baby eagle would get up and stretch and flap its wings, or at least shake a tail feather or two, but it didn't do anything. While waiting, Carol's mare and Karen's gelding contentedly grazed on whatever they could find, like scrubby sage bushes, tiny roots, but Jose just stood waiting. He's always on the clock when we're eagle hunting. Actually he appeared to be dozing off most of the time. I think he can sleep anywhere.

We gave it a few more looks, then packed up to leave. We took a different route home, at first looking at the map, following a wash and connecting up with a road, then going by instinct. We came across a couple of springs on the way home, nice hidden little mini-valleys that must look like bright green stripes on the brown land from a soaring eagle eye. We also saw a few jackrabbits that would keep baby eagles well-fed.

It was quite warm when we got back home from our 12-mile jaunt into eagle territory. This time it was a successful foray – add golden eagle to the list of cool species I've gotten to see here this visit!

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