Back in Minnesota, the only times I saw an American Eagle was on the US currency, or in a zoo. OK, National Geographic shows too. American Eagles were once on the endangered species list and there was a good chance they’d go extinct.
Around the time American Eagles were recovering their numbers, we moved out here. One day my friend, Dan, and I were up in the mountains (about a half-hour drive) doing some plinking when Dan said, “Look”, there was an American Eagle soaring high above. Having never seen one on the wing, I wasn’t sure what Dan was pointing. “Look carefully and its head and tail,” Dan said. Well, sure enough, white feathers. I’d seen my first eagle.
The eagle was on the hunt, for without a single flap of his wings, the eagle was flying in a progressing pattern of overlapping circles. He didn’t find anything in our area so in a short while, he’d moved beyond a peak.
I’ve seen many eagles since.
In fact, there’s a pair living in the Snohomish River valley 3-4 miles from here and every now and again, they’ll come visit. You’ll hear them talking with one another. Then scan the sky and, sure enough, there they’ll be. One morning a few summers back, one of them perched for a while in the big cottonwood tree just up the block. He was enormous. I didn’t think a bird could grow that large.
Well, one cloudy afternoon last week, Jo and I were coming back from Monroe on the Tulaco Loop Road, putting along at maybe fifteen miles an hour, just rubbernecking. We’ve seen this area oodles of times before, but never tire of it. Off on the right was a field chock-a-block with white swans. (There are so many swans around here they’re almost pests.)
While we were gawking at the swans, something dark swooped over the car, heading for the open field of swans. It was a pair of American Eagles flying synchronously, just like Olympic swimmers (you have to see an eagle fly to appreciate the depth of their wing strokes). They broke formation and chased each other around the sky. First one, then the other, would pull up vertically, turn over on its back, execute an immelman maneuver and dive toward the mate. Then one, thanks to those huge wings, hovered like a hummingbird as the other came up from below, rolled on its back, and it looked like they were trying to lock feet.
We watched as they played this kind of grab-ass for several more minutes as they progressed toward the river bottom, where we assume they nest in a cottonwood. The swans, or course, remained resolutely on the ground.
The eagles were just going out of sight when one broke off, turned, and headed back in our direction. He was no longer soaring, he was coming back on business. A few strokes of those wings and the eagle accelerated, coming on as straight as an arrow. By the time he crossed Tulaco Loop about two blocks ahead of us, he must have been going fifty miles an hour and no more than twenty feet off the ground. He then banked to the right and swung behind a grove of old Maples and was gone.
Moving as one, the flock of swans took flight and headed in the opposite direction.
Neither the Blue Angles nor the Thunderbirds can do aerobatics like those two eagles. If you want to know what an eagle must surely feel, here is “High Flight” — a classic poem written by Gillespie Magee of the RAF:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.