This is more a wildlife post than a gardening post, but as it happened in the new pond, and the pond is really the centerpiece of the garden, I am blogging this event on this site. Also, I have so many photos that if I sent them out they would really slow down the receiving computers, and I wanted to include all the photos. So here it is, the pictorial story of the bald eagle who took a bath in our pond.
First, some background. Born in the mid-fifties, I have been an unhappy witness to the environmental degradation that has been the largely unnecessary result of the industrial revolution. There have been moments of hope: the national revulsion when the Cuyahoga river in Ohio caught on fire, the outcry when the link between pesticides and raptor egg viability was determined, the joy when beaches were declared public land, open to all. However, all of these moments of seeming clarity, of the shift in public perception regarding the incredible natural wealth of our country, always seemed to fade. The Baby Boomers, of whom I am one, seemed to move from a culture of ideology to one of remorseless personal greed and devotion to self-gratification. This ushered in the super-sized era of McMansions, SUVs, multiple homes, pesticide, fertilizer and petroleum dependent yards and ever-increasing locomotion by any petroleum-fueled means. Devices undreamed of in my childhood, like leaf blowers, and backpack sprayers spread noise, fumes, toxins and poisons through every neighborhood in America. From the modest dream of a chicken in every pot the grandiose boomers moved to a dream of every whim indulged, every action facilitated, the consequences to the environment be damned.
The transient spasm of concern for the environment in the ’60s and early 70’s did leave a number of very important laws in its wake, among them the Endangered Species Act (signed into law by Richard Nixon), which provided protection for listed species, making it illegal to kill the individuals, or threaten their habitat. One of those species was the Bald Eagle, the symbol of America, which was nearly extinct here in a nation that ostensibly revered the animal. In Oregon we were down to 20 nesting pairs in 1971, when I was a teenager. I never saw a Bald Eagle in the U.S. when I was growing up; there were hardly any to be seen. In fact, I did not see one until I was 15 years old, and then it was in northern British Columbia, circling over a Safeway store (probably the only Safeway store) in the town of Williams Lake. On that same trip I witnessed a pair of Bald Eagles spiraling from the valley floor that was essentially at sea level, to above the mountain upon which I was standing, at 7,000 feet, without once moving their wings. They were using a column of warm air (a thermal) to lift them in elevation. In retrospect I don’t even think they were working, I believe they were just employing physics as its own end. It was a magnificent sight, and has stayed with me vividly ever since. Upon returning to the U.S. it was a source of active shame to me that my own country had nearly obliterated these animals in the name of violence, greed and carelessness.
In the past few years, however, I have started seeing Bald Eagles in the U.S. And these have not been back-country eagles, but in the metro area, along the Willamette and the Columbia, around Sauvie Island, on farmland down I-5, even in a tall Douglas Fir intently observing a neighbor’s chicken coop. As sighting grew more frequent they became a topic of wonder and excitement in our family. I just find it impossible to be indifferent to seeing one of these animals. For one thing they are HUGE, with a wingspan of six to seven and a half feet, and heavy (for a bird), with a weight of up to 15 pounds. Their cruising flight speed is about 35 to 45 mph, with a dive speed just shy of 100 mph. This size, in combination with their very stern-looking visage, and their general avoidance of humans makes every sighting an experience. The bird has been de-listed from the endangered species list, and in Oregon now numbers nearly 500 breeding pairs, a 25-fold increase in 40 years, hence the increased visibility.
So, this past weekend, life at our house stopped when a bald eagle flew low over the house, coming in from the east, the direction of the river, and dropped onto a stone in our pond. From there he (a term of convenience, I do not know the gender) hopped onto the bank, and from there into the gently sloping shallow area of the smaller pool in the pond. He sat there for about five minutes, chest-deep in water, scanning his surroundings for any sign of danger, I expect mostly human danger, since I cannot conceive of any other serious threat to him. After a time he seemed satisfied that he was safe. While he was reconnoitering we were rounding up the dog, and making sure she did not see him and bark, hissing at one another to ensure that we all saw him, and to get the cameras. We tried not to move anywhere where he could see us, or speak above a whisper, for fear of scaring him. Because of this we were slow to get cameras, and then did not really have time to set them properly (plus our cameras are, comparatively, poor), so the resulting pictures aren’t great, but they do document the rest of his bath-time pretty well. I am presenting them here in chronological order. And, a bit of anthropomorphizing here, can you imagine the relief he felt in getting rid of all (most of) the ticks, mites and lice that accumulated over the winter? We loved seeing him, and I hope he left here feeling greatly refreshed.
And then he flew away. I think my favorite moment of the whole event was when he decided to go back into the water, and plunged in so wholeheartedly. Again anthropomorphically, my kids do the same thing. I hear the shower water turned off, and then turned back on again. Missed a spot? Too cold to get out? Having fun? I don’t know, but that moment seemed very familiar to me.
We built (or rather re-built) the pond in order to support amphibian life; my hopes and dreams were along the lines of frogs and newts. To have this magnificent creature (not to belittle frogs and newts, I find them magnificent, too, just less dramatically so) show up when the pond is still in such an early stage of equilibration, just blows my mind. And it opens the entire question of: What next? A bear? A moose? A unicorn? Anything seems possible after such an event. Even the impossible.
I am also reminded, for the millionth time, that every decision I make, everything I have or do, has an impact that spreads far beyond myself. I had this experience because of the choices I have made in my life, plus a hefty dose of luck. When I choose to demand less, there is room for so much more. If I had a thousand years and all the money in the world I could not build a Bald Eagle. So, really our choice on this planet comes down to one of two: do I destroy or do I try and protect? I can only hope that our collective will will once again turn towards the latter.