Eagle’s Cry

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I awoke yesterday morning to an eagle’s cry.

“Are you still asleep?” I asked my wife. Her eyes opened a crack, and I said, “It’s the eagle. I can hear it.” She lifted her head from the pillow to listen, and the eagle cried again. We both rolled out of bed and pulled on our swimsuits. It was 6:20. The wind was nearly still, and the lake was the quietest it had been this trip. The air was cool but weighted with a touch of humidity. I got to the beach first and high-stepped into the water until it was up to my waist, far enough out to see the eagle if it was perched in its usual tree, a towering hemlock just south of the camp property. The eagle wasn’t there, but a moment later, it glided overhead, wings held wide as it flew south and then banked eastward around the point. My wife arrived after it had gone, and when I told her where it was headed, she set out that way with a strong crawl stroke. She went perhaps a hundred yards and then switched to backstroke so she could look up at the trees as she swam. Soon, she rounded the point and went out of sight. I used to worry when she swam far away, alone in open water, but she’s a powerful, relaxed swimmer, and my anxiety has faded over the years. I swam up and down the length of the beach for a little while and then stood in the water, looking across the lake. A fog bank had settled over the low hills. Though it appeared static from where I was, I imagined being up close and watching it creep over the peaks and down their slopes, a slow, vaporous waterfall.

I returned to the tent to dress, and my wife joined me perhaps fifteen minutes later. Swimming around the point, she had seen two eagles in flight, and she thought at least one of them may have come back toward camp. I went outside, and pretty soon, I heard the same, plaintive cry that had awakened me. I couldn’t see the eagle, though I could hear that it was high in a tree nearby. Then the cry changed to a gentler, chittering call, and I looked up to see another eagle glide toward where the call had originated. It was as if the perched eagle had called to the other, “Here I am. Come home to me.” The one that flew over was huge, its great brown wings stretched wide. Its white head seemed preposterously small, stuck on the front of its massive body like an afterthought.

imageIn the camp hall, there is a list from 1899 of the birds that were spotted around the property that year. It is written in a fine, looping hand and is meticulously alphabetized. It has common as well as Latin names, including which taxonomic system the writer used for each – most are Linnaean, but not all. There are four varieties of sparrow and three swallows, two types of woodpecker, bald eagle, phoebe, bobolink, purple martin, kingbird and kingfisher, and many others. I don’t know if all of the birds are still found in this area, and of course there’s no way to verify the accuracy of the list today, but it makes me think about the people as much as the birds that were at camp then. Was it one birder who compiled it? Several? How many bird experts were in that early bunch of campers? Was the list a special project? Or did people just mention their observations over the course of the season, and someone thought to write them down? If we made a bird list today, would it be so long and varied? Or have many of those bird species disappeared from this lake and these woods, victims of climate change, environmental degradation, and habitat loss?

Last night, the barred owls called again and again from points all over camp. I’ve heard them almost every night this trip, but this was the most active they had been. I remarked on hearing one when I was sitting in the hall in the late evening. A couple of campers cocked their heads, listening through the open windows, and when it called again, they nodded their satisfaction. No owls appear on the 1899 list. It skips from “ovenbird” to “pewee, wood,” but whether that means no owls were heard is a question to which the answer is lost to time, much like the species that disappear daily today.

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