At the small pond, nestled above the meadow at the base of the gulley in the tall pines, Vivi shoulders her red and black day pack. The one she used to carry with her on rock climbing trips, over 20 years old now. Repurposed as a birding pack with field binoculars, tripod and the spotting scope her husband gave her for her birthday.
She grabs her trekking poles and crosses the small stream above the pond, overgrown with wildflowers, columbine, monkshood, white and pink wild geranium, and the seep spring monkey flower with its orchid like bloom, bright yellow with orange bearded stamen. Stepping carefully over the wildflowers, soft footfalls onto the pine duff, she ducks her head below the disarray of low pine boughs, following the deer trail into the dense forest. The path is steep here made by ungulates, not humans.
She crouches through a brush bramble and climbs over fallen deadfall. A large pine trunk fallen across the now deep walls of the stream. All of her senses – sight, direction, balance, smell, touch, strength – are focused on her progress up the steep forest slope. An off-camber path, loose patches of eroded soil, large piles of pine needles that give way to the weight of a human. Trekking poles are essential now. Almost to ridgeline, hair full of dust, pine tree pollen, and a spider web or two, she turns to face the cirque of Wilson Peak to check her line of sight. The eagle’s buttress is not quite in view. She turns back to face the slope before her to carefully choose her next steps. No good choices left. Assistance from the shrubberies helps her hoist herself upwards to the next spot of clear ground wide enough to stand on, ten feet higher. She checks again and the buttress is in sight.
Unshouldering her pack, on the sloping ground beneath her feet that aren’t as steady as they used to be before her back injury. She adjusts the tripod legs to the uneven loose terrain, locks the scope to the head, removes the lens cap and eye cover. The buttress faces southwest so is in full light now. A dark brown feathered body ambles haltingly along the orange red cliff band, most likely this year’s fledgling golden eagle.
She attempts the cover of a makeshift blind from the nearest pine tree. The black flies have hatched. The eagles aren’t the only species in the mad rush to procreate in the short mountain summers. Unfortunately, she forgot gloves. The flies are small and voracious. She doesn’t feel them until after they have bitten. Their favorite site the soft tender skin between the fingers.
Training her attention – away from the flies, the dust, the dry hot air that steals the moisture from her body, mouth, eyes and nostrils with every desiccating breath – back to the cliff band, a stunning harsh environment with orange walls stained grey, white and black in places from water runoff. A large cave to the left, a shrubbery, a small pine growing out of the long deep vertical crack. Across from the crack a large mass of sticks, the nest, glistening grey and white in reflection of the bright summer afternoon sun. The fledgling is practicing wing-hopping along the ledge, with a playful cadence, seemingly belying a wild spirit exploring its newfound physicality. A wide-open flap, displays the striped plumage quintessential to juvenile golden eagles – dark feathers on top and bottom of the underside wings – with a striking contrasted white strip of feathers in the middle, standing out like headlights in flight.
Flap, hop, flap, alight on the pine bough, perch, lookout to take in the expansive view. Flap, extend, down to the ledge. Flap, hop across the wide crack. Jump-almost fly- into the nest.
His back to Vivi now with an abrupt jerk she sees the head raise up with huge force and power. Surprised, this bird is older than she thought. It takes several months to develop the extreme force required to rip and tear flesh off the bones of a carcass. Again and again she observes the dip into the nest, slight reposition, followed by the forceful jerk.
She’s seen this motion close up once before. A full grown golden eagle, feasting alone along the roadside on the way to the reservoir at dusk last Spring, as the receding snow melted away to reveal a perfectly preserved deer carcass. The enormous bird perched in the same position, back to her, slightly turned, dipping head to slain body, tearing flesh with a forceful jerk, exuding impressive power, grace, beauty, violence, while taking nourishment.
She wonders now if her blind is sufficient to avoid disturbing the young raptor’s solitary meal.