Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Six Eagles and a Drunk
The first half of our trip around the refuge was uneventful. As is our custom, we had windows down, the heat cranked, and seat belts off for ease of movement. Walt drove with his camera and its big lens resting across his lap. I rode shotgun with the good binoculars which I'd bought him for a birthday a few years ago (and which he rarely gets to use). The wind blasted through the car with what seemed like malice, but we just buttoned coats and ignored it.
There were the usual coots and mallards and shovelers. Distant calls of redwing blackbirds. Canada geese and tundra swans flocked by the hundreds.
More cars than we usually see on a Sunday afternoon strung out in front and behind, creating a beaded necklace encircling the wide throat of the refuge. We played a slow game of leapfrog, passing a car pulled over to study the nutria grazing on the nearby dike, being passed as we stopped so Walt could shoot a solo snaky-necked egret.
While Walt focused his camera on the egret, my eyes were drawn upward to soaring wings which tipped just enough to reveal the flash of tail white that could only belong to a bald eagle. I craned around to watch him circle behind when another flash of brown and white hurtled right at him mid-flight. The two flew out of sight, one pursued, the other pursuer.
Just a few yards up the road, we noticed several cars bunched together, and arrived just in time to see another baldie lift up from a branch and disappear into the skim milk sky in the disconcerting way of eagles, like animals in a magic act.
For another long stretch there was no more excitement. We noted the dearth of herons and harriers, usually abundant for our visits. Walt started to speed up a bit through a stretch where we've only ever seen the chewed evidence of beaver presence, geese in the distance, and the occasional grebe, when we both noticed brake lights filling the curve in the road just ahead.
As we sat in the line, no room for leapfrog in that narrow spot, waiting to move forward, I began to hear the high-pitched whistle that could only belong to a raptor. I saw the white head in the midst of bare branches first, then the red meat between talons, and realized I was seeing a mature eagle feeding. We watched for a few minutes before I spotted movement a few branches above, which turned out to be a yearling: dark streaked brown, fluffed feathers, with eyes that begged to be given a turn at the carcass below.
Suddenly from out of nowhere another yearling shot into the picture, causing the perched one to topple. Somehow they both ended up on the adult which resulted in a frantic flurry of feathers and wings. When all three had resettled themselves on separate branches, I noticed the door open on the car in front of us. A woman was trying to see the birds, one of which was peering down just above her head, so when she stepped out of the car, I tried to tell her to look up.
Instead, she staggered toward me with a loopy grin on her face and alcohol-pink eyes, almost tipping over when her foot caught a soft rut. The driver of her car was yelling at her to get back in the car now! which she blithely ignored. She apparently needed to point out one of the other eagles to me as the one she and her partner had rescued earlier in the day. I smiled and nodded in response, wondering if she really believed such a preposterous story, and more, if she expected me to. Her smile grew wider in the telling of her tale, which made her head bob which threatened to topple her. For a moment she looked lost, uncertain, but then her smile returned and she turned and lurched back to her car, which took off like the getaway car at a bank robbery.
In the days since our visit, I've found myself thinking about that woman even more than the wonder of getting to observe such amazing eagle behaviors.
Part of it is the incongruity of running into a drunk person in the refuge that is our sanctuary. People are not supposed to get out of cars there this time of year, so we rarely have contact with our fellow birders anyway, but when we do it's usually to share a smiling nod or the name of a bird or to point out an interesting sight. There is a definite air of dignity and holiness about that wild place.
Mostly, though, I think I can't quite get her out of my mind because she could easily have been me twenty years ago. Needing a drink to feel the glory around me, to feel safe, to feel anything at all. Unable to face a Sunday afternoon without the false fluid warmth of alcohol to soften the ever-present edges. Telling stories that I believed made me look important to smiling strangers, and not realizing how obvious my altered state was.
I wish I could save her from herself, and convince her she is beautiful and appealing and enough. I wish I could tell her to stop listening to the lies that keep her imprisoned, that she has the power to break free. I wish I had been able to say, "It's possible to find your own light. I'm proof, in the same way these eagles are proof that you can come back from the brink to flourish and thrive."