The Annals of Country Life

Morning’s Minion

December 8th, 2017 8 Comments


I was driving home the other day, when I saw a Peregrine. Those of you who know anything about this most remarkable falcon will understand what I am saying is: I caught a quick glimpse of a Peregrine. I was driving one way and it was flying the other, and since the Peregrine is considered the fastest bird on earth, I didn’t really have much of a chance to study him.

I should qualify that. The Peregrine has been regularly clocked at speeds well in excess of two-hundred miles an hour during its stoop (the hunting dive a bird of prey makes when it plunges after its prey), but it doesn’t routinely fly that fast while en route from point A to point B. On the other hand, it doesn’t exactly lollygag, either, and this one was clearly a Peregrine with places to go, people to see, and things to do.

Another notable thing about the Peregrine is that while it is the most widespread raptor on earth, being found virtually everywhere except New Zealand, it is also quite rare (my 1990 edition of Roger Tory Peterson lists it as endangered), so seeing one in the wild is a big deal. I’ve only (knowingly) seen three in my lifetime, but by far the most unusual sighting was the first one I ever saw, in the Arc Dome Wilderness area of the Toiyabe Mountain Range in central Nevada.

I was deer hunting, and for reasons that have now faded from the memory bank, I was sitting with the outfitter’s wife, overlooking a very deep and rugged canyon, when she spotted a Peregrine gliding below us, presumably in search of his dinner, as I was in search of mine. I think I can safely say there are not many people in the wide world who have had the privilege of looking down on the back of this revered bird.

There are multiple subspecies of the Peregrine, and I am nowhere nearly knowledgeable enough to know which is which or how to tell them apart (my friend Steve Bodio—– almost certainly can), but judging by maps of ranges, it is a safe bet that all three of the ones I have seen are the so-called American Peregrine falcon, since that’s the one found in all of the lower forty-eight states with the exception of the Pacific Northwest. (The one in the Northwest is known as a Peale’s falcon.)

Peregrines were once almost, if not completely, exterminated on the East Coast by pesticides, but after they began their comeback, New York city made a specific effort to introduce them into the canyons of Manhattan. If memory serves, this was done in part for purposes of preserving the species, but also in part to keep the pigeon population in check, pigeons in the Big Apple being as plentiful and obnoxious as pickpockets, purse snatchers, and politicians. Apparently that reintroduction effort was successful, and the average birdwatcher today is more likely to see a Peregrine in Manhattan than in the mountains. But wherever you see one, it’s a thrilling sight, just as seeing any accomplished predator is thrilling.

I know I’ve posted this before, and I know the term “windhover” refers to a kestrel, not a Peregrine, but it is still a poem well worth posting and reading over and over, especially at the beginning of this Christmas season.


The Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

To Christ our Lord


I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!


Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!


No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Easter Eyases

April 15th, 2017 5 Comments

About a week ago, perhaps two, I first saw a large nest at the top of a very tall oak a few hundred yards away. I was on the side of a hill, which put me at the same elevation as the nest, but it was so much a part of the tree, made out of large twigs from the self-same tree—an oak that has clumps of mistletoe in it—that I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if it hadn’t been for movement. I got my binoculars and saw Mrs. Red-tail’s head sticking up, and while at that distance even ten-power binoculars couldn’t get me close enough to say for certain, I can guess that she had very much the same resigned and long-suffering look of all mothers who are approaching end of term and very much ready for the next phase of events. I made a note to keep an eye open for the next phase. It has now occurred.

I went out with the binoculars yesterday and could see two downy white heads sticking up above the nest while mom (or dad; I couldn’t tell the difference at that distance and might not be able to tell the difference unless I had one on each shoulder; females are larger) sat on a nearby branch doing guard duty.

And guard duty is very much a critical constant. Ravens and, I assume, other birds of prey, possibly even other red-tails, are an unending threat, as too, I suppose, would be any raccoon ambitious enough to climb that high. Fifteen or twenty years ago I was out walking with one of my dogs when I witnessed a raven make a very ill-advised and badly-timed attempt to raid a red-tail’s nest. How the raven thought he was going to get away with it, or how he was myopic enough not to have noticed mom sitting on the nest, I can’t say, but I actually saw the damn fool descend, feet first, as if he planned to sit on the nest himself. The next moment he wanted very much to be anywhere except where he was, because mom had grabbed one of his legs in her beak and for the space of almost a minute I was treated to the spectacle of one of the most intelligent birds on earth behaving like a moron, frantically and stupidly flapping his wings in an effort to get away, and screaming his fool head off. Of course, if a red-tail grabbed my leg in its beak, I’d probably scream my head off too, but it certainly didn’t show the raven off to best advantage.

Baby hawks and falcons are called eyas, the plural being eyases or possibly eyasses. The Oxford Unabridged tells me the word comes from the Latin and is one of numerous words that originally had a “n” in front, a “n” that got dropped, much as adder used to be “nadder,” and apron used to be “napron.” To be honest, I only know the word, eyases, from Hamlet, because Rosencrantz uses it to describe child actors in the scene where he and Guildenstern tell Hamlet the players are coming to Elsinore. Otherwise I would have been content to call them baby hawks. Since Shakespeare spells the plural with one “s,” that’s good enough for me, and don’t bother telling me Shakespeare’s spelling is suspect at best, and frequently attributable to someone else entirely. The Yale Shakespeare has him spelling it that way, Shakespeare’s good enough for me, and that’s that.

They are cute little beggars. As I watched them, dad (or possibly mom) came home with groceries and was immediately greeted with open beaks. It was impossible to tell, at that distance, precisely what the groceries had once been, but the odds are good it was either a gopher, a very small ground squirrel, or a chipmunk, but I’m basing that solely on size. Whatever it might have been, I watched for a while as mom (or dad) tore off junks and thrust them into waiting beaks.

Feeding one’s children is always a lot of work, for every species that actually devotes some care to its offspring, including humans, but baby red-tails must count as some of the most demanding. They grow very quickly: within six weeks they are ready to leave the nest, which seems like an exceptionally rapid rate of growth for a bird that can live to be twenty-five years old in the wild, and that much growth in six weeks requires a lot of fuel.

Red-tails are technically considered migratory birds (at least, they are protected by the Migratory Bird Act) but throughout virtually all of the lower forty-eight states they tend to live in one area year-round, and that one area encompasses almost every kind of habitat we have in America, as long as there is some open area for hunting and as long as there are some high perching spots for nesting, so you can find red-tails in heavily forested areas, in open prairies, in the mountains, and in the deserts of the Southwest.

They also have a wide range of plumage, including a melanistic variation which I have seen in my neck of the woods. By melanistic I mean very, very dark brown, almost black, and almost completely devoid of any markings. It took me a long time to realize what I was seeing when that particular bird appeared near our ranch, but regardless of coloration, they are breath-takingly beautiful and I get a thrill every time I see one sailing majestically along or taking his ease in a tree. Or sitting on a nest with babies in Easter week.

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing.

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

The Windhover, To Christ Our Lord, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Spring Is Sprung

March 20th, 2017 12 Comments


Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide


Now, of my threescore years and ten,

Twenty will not come again,

And take from seventy springs a score,

It only leaves me fifty more.


And since to look at things in bloom,

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.


A Shropshire Lad, A. E. Housman


My father used to send me poems when I was away at school or college, and this—along with pretty near everything else A. E. Housman wrote—was one of his favorites. It is one of mine, too. It resonated when I first read it, precariously typed and with frequent corrections made in my father’s singular, elegant, elongated handwriting, and it resonates with me still.

California is a monochromatic state, not given to the lush greenness or seasonal riot of color we associate with eastern states or European countries. Its nickname, the Golden state, is a reference to the fortuitous discovery made at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, but it is also a tip of the hat to the ubiquitous golden grasses that cover every inch of the place, save the Mojave desert and the golf courses of metastasizing urban areas, from the Oregon line to the Mexican border.

But this year, after the coldest and wettest winter in (insert the number quoted by your favorite news source) years, an abrupt week of sun and warm temperatures has turned my part of the world into an Impressionist painting. The first shy blush of green on the cottonwoods, grass as rich and dark green as Ireland, jonquils, hyacinth, forsythia, and a riot of fruit trees, fruit-bearing and flowering only, in every lovely color, with great patches yet to come on the mountainsides that will eventually be poppies and lupine, all of it evoking the rituals and ceremonies and traditions of Easter and the world awakening. The deer are all blowing their coats and look decidedly shabby. The redwing blackbirds have returned, and on a nearby lake I saw a cinnamon teal. He might have been lollygagging there all winter long, but it pleases me to imagine him resting on his northward migration, another harbinger of long summer days to come.

Of course, the forecast calls for cold and snow next week, but it is lovely as long as it lasts, and what more can a man ask?

The Annals of Country Life: Mississippi kites

February 20th, 2017 17 Comments

Still in my pajamas (flannel, Black Watch pattern, from LL Bean) this morning, I glanced out the bedroom window and saw two raptors of a kind I had never seen before, sitting together in a cottonwood tree not thirty feet from the house. I am not a bird watcher in the sense of going out with binoculars and book specifically for that purpose, but I do like to identify the birds I see.

Easier said than done. Yes, physically the birds were clearly Mississippi kites. After that, the consensus is that Jameson must have been nipping at the whisky far too early in the day. As the name implies, this is not a bird one might expect to see in the southern Sierras at any time of the year, let alone in February.

I went to many sources, looking for solid, calcified, irrefutable information, but apparently bird-watching is like just about everything else in the world these days: the answer varies depending on who you ask.

Most of the sources I checked claim the farthest West the Mississippi kite is ever seen is in isolated colonies in New Mexico and Arizona, but even this does not include either their winter range (outside the U.S.) or their migratory range (late March to early April), both of which would seem to kind of rule out California in February.

I found a site that said the Mississippi kite was expanding its range, but then went on to clarify that by specifically narrowing the expansion northward in eastern states only. One site that allowed me to put in the identifying characteristics of the birds I saw, along with where, geographically, I had seen them, and the time year I had seen them, was unambiguous about the species, and expressed no doubt that I had seen them in California. Another site with the same format was equally unambiguous about the fact that I must have been nipping at the whisky. Yet another site caught my attention because it stated that the size was “larger than a rock pigeon” and rock pigeons is what I first thought I was looking at.

So, there you have it. If anyone has any concrete evidence of Mississippi kites breeding, migrating, wintering, or making permanent homes in California, I would love to hear from you. Are they casual visitors, tourists who come to see the sights, take the rides at Disneyland, look at the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, gaze in awe at the giant Sequoias, shake their heads over urban sprawl or this year’s flooding? Or is this a brand new, hitherto unrecorded phenomenon related to global warming or manifest destiny or something else entirely?

Any bird experts out there?

Golfing in the West

December 18th, 2016 16 Comments


My bride was driving by the local golf course when she saw this foursome playing though. She immediately came and got me and my camera and then sat patiently in the car as I trailed them. There were actually five bulls, one of them an eight-by-seven, but I was never able to get all of them together in a single photo and the eight-by-seven wandered off before I could get any shot of him.




I have never played golf. All I know about the game is what I have read in the Mr. Mulliner stories by P.G Wodehouse, but I do believe these qualify as what are known as “hazards.” They seemed pretty mellow, but I kept a respectful distance and I suspect if some duffer whacked one of them with a long drive, they might become less mellow. So would I, for that matter, if I got bonked on the coconut by a long drive. If you look closely, you can see that all the racks have suffered some damage from brawling over the ladies. On one of them, even the main beam on the left has been broken. The rut is long over and there were no ladies present anywhere, but even so, two of them had to engage in a little practice shoving and pushing, not unlike teenaged boys showing off and testing their muscles.



I do wonder what the groundkeepers think of them.

Please Do Not Annoy the Elk

October 6th, 2016 12 Comments

Elk 068 (2) (Small)


Twenty years ago or more, Darleen and I went for a hike in Alberta’s Elk Island National Park east of Edmonton. Its name notwithstanding, it is a refuge more famous for its herds of bison than elk, with warnings everywhere to be wary of the bison and not get too close. In fact, in the parking area there was in those days a graphic photograph of what could happen if one did get too close to a one-ton mass of aggression and attitude, a photograph that inspired a lot of respect.

We chose a trail that went in long loop (roughly eight miles, if memory serves), starting at the parking area and ending at the parking area. At a little over the six mile mark we came to a large marsh where the only way across was a narrow wooden causeway perhaps a hundred yards long. At the far end of the causeway, at the foot of the steps back down to the trail, there was a large bull bison dozing in the sun.

There was the bull. There we were. There we stayed. Our options narrowed down to waiting for him to finish his nap, or turning around and walking back, making our pleasant eight mile jaunt a somewhat more rigorous twelve-mile-plus schlep. We tried waiting, oh boy did we try waiting; we tried yelling at him; we tried positive thinking; we tried prayer, but it was clear this was a bull who had found his place in the sun and planned to get his beauty rest, so after about forty-five minutes we gave up and went back the way we had come.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when we tried to take our dogs to a dog park in a nearby community. It’s a very large fenced and mowed area in an even bigger park where we can let them off-leash to blow off steam in continuous wind sprints without picking up the foxtails in their fur which necessitate a good hour of grooming afterward. It wears them out (a tired dog is a good dog) without wearing us out (a tired dog owner is a grumpy dog owner).

We pulled into the parking area to be greeted by four giant bull elk grazing leisurely in front of the gate into the dog park. One of them, a magnificent eight by seven, was as large as any bull I’ve ever seen. Of course, with running the dogs being the only thing on my mind, I hadn’t brought my camera (that’s an old photograph above), so all we could do was leave the dogs in the car and stand and admire. And that was what we were doing when a woman in spandex and high-tech walking shoes showed up. She had a smart phone and took some pictures of the elk, but she seemed annoyed at having her path blocked, and when Darleen made a comment about the beauty of the bulls, she launched into an exasperated tirade.

Those same elk, those exact four, it appeared, had been on her lawn, on the front lawn of her house, mind you, and had grazed there too, pulling out great chunks of her grass, her expensive front lawn, her manicured and beautifully maintained lawn that she had spent so much money on, damaging it, and when she had told her husband to go out and shoo them away, he had said, he had actually told her to go shoo them off herself! 

She flounced off on her hike in the opposite direction, away from the elk, and I found myself wondering at anyone who could find such beauty a nuisance. I think I would like her husband.

Ah, Youth!

July 24th, 2016 16 Comments

Bobcat 018 (Small)

I’ve been writing almost exclusively about books and politics and Second Amendment issues lately and much of that is due to the aftereffects of the horse wreck, my not being able to do some of the things I used to do outside.

One of the things I used to do that I do not miss in the slightest is weed whacking the critical areas around the property that must be cleared in case of fire. Fire is an ever-present danger in these mountains, and clearing one’s property is required by both law and common sense. Behind our house the hill rises steeply and weed whacking is limited by natural obstacles: a property boundary fence here, boulders there, a sudden rise in incline in this area, more boulders in that area, a natural cut, trees… You get the picture. The men I hired to do what I used to do followed pretty much the same boundaries I would have followed: above that area the weeds are dangerously thick this year; below it, everything is cut down to the dirt.

So I was standing with my back to the window, talking to my bride, when she suddenly yelped and pointed out at the hill. For a moment, what I thought I saw was one of our ridiculously overly-domesticated and overly-pampered indoor-only cats trotting across the cleared area. Then I realized it was a bobcat kitten. (Not the bobcat in the photo above; that one is a fully grown bobcat, with attitude, and in a bad mood.)

Not a kitten exactly, as much as barely an adolescent, a very young bobcat hovering in that awkward stage between childhood and adulthood. He had probably only within the last week been kicked out of the house for talking back to his mother and he was now boldly exploring his world with no thought to either danger or his next meal. There are ground squirrels galore in the boulders back there—I have been shooting them with monotonous regularly, but every time you kill one, twenty more come to the funeral—but no bobcat ever caught a ground squirrel by trotting blithely along in the open.

We watched him trot up at an angle to the base of one of the groups of boulders where he threw himself down on his back in a dusty spot and wriggled as hard and as thoroughly as he could. I know what he was doing was taking a dust bath to discourage fleas, but something about the way he did it, the youthful energy, the joie de vivre, the quality of making even a necessary toilette something of a game, made my wife and me both laugh. And when he got up, he didn’t just “get up;” he bounced up, shook himself vigorously, and vanished into the long weeds above.

That youthful exuberance reminded me of a boy I knew half a century ago, a boy whose boundless energy and sheer joy of living in his own healthy body used to make both his parents alternately laugh and tear out their hair. Unlike Mama Bobcat, they were patient and forbearing enough not to throw me out on my own.

I wish that young bobcat well.

A Neighborly Visit

May 28th, 2016 15 Comments



In the country, neighbors sometimes just drop by unannounced and make themselves comfortable on the front porch. To put this gentleman (or lady) in perspective for you, the antique French bread rack is five feet wide, precisely sixty inches, making this by far the largest gopher snake I have ever seen, larger by about a foot than the one that, ah, shall we say, surprised me one day in the barn as I was unloading hay bales. I chanced to look up and a very large gopher snake was resting comfortably on a very narrow beam directly over my head, watching me work. Among other things, I told that particular snake I thought it ill-mannered of him to laze about watching me do the heavy lifting and not even volunteering to help.

This is a Pacific gopher snake, and according to my copy of The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians, they can grow as large as 100-inches in length, over eight feet. Five feet is plenty big enough for me. I mean, there’s no point in showing off.

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

February 24th, 2016 14 Comments

bobcat and Bear 023 (Small)


Little Bear, our Australian shepherd (shown much younger), alerted us to a coyote on the hill behind the house. He didn’t bark, but he had been sitting by the sliding glass door, as the dogs often do, gazing out at the steady parade of birds and chipmunks, when suddenly his whole energy changed, and his casual gazing turned into an intense, focused stare. I went to investigate.

He had good reason to stare. It was an almost totally naked coyote, by which I mean not that his winter coat had fallen out, but that he had little or no fur at all on his body, and his tail was a thin and naked embarrassment of an appendage. It was—or certainly appeared to be—hands down the worst case of mange I’ve ever seen on any animal.

Coyote with mange


We tend to think of disease as unnatural, as an aberration away from the norm, but because we see it in ourselves and our fellow man, as well as in our dogs or cats or horses, we accept the occasional aberration as unfortunate but not unnatural, something to be treated and cured. Because we do not usually see it in wild animals we tend to think it doesn’t occur, or at least only very rarely, but I suspect it happens far more often than we realize.

Think of the rabies outbreaks that from time to time sweep through various parts of the country. When I was very young, rabies was still common among dogs, especially in the South, and I can remember my father and mother once cautioning me about the deadliness of the disease, and what to look out for. Today it is a thing of the past among household pets, but when we first moved up to these mountains, the local game warden told me that a rabies outbreak had decimated the gray fox population and in fact it was almost twenty years before I saw one.



Also here in California, I was once attacked by a skunk I assume was rabid. I don’t mean that he sprayed me (though I have had that happen too—memorably) but that he kept charging me and trying to bite me until I finally just outran the little bastard.



I have seen fluctuations in the local rabbit population, ranging from their being so numerous that they were a pain in the ass and I practically had to kick them out of my way every time I went out of the house, down to non-existent. Last year I didn’t see one at all, and I have yet to see one this year; even the jackrabbit numbers seem to be greatly reduced.

Blue tongue (hemorrhagic disease) and Chronic Wasting Disease have had their impact on the whitetail herds in parts of Missouri where I like to hunt with my old friend Hal, and deer are also susceptible to tuberculosis and any number of parasites. Birds can carry—and die from—West Nile Virus. Wild pigs can have brucellosis, swine fever, and pseudorabies, which has nothing to do with actual rabies, despite the name. Domestic sheep are subject to more diseases than you can shake a stick at and I’m sure wild sheep have a lengthy list of species-specific illnesses, but the one I am familiar with is pneumonia, which strikes wild herds fairly frequently. I was once asked to help rid a ranch in Texas of its herd of red sheep (mouflon), a task that turned out to be more difficult than you could imagine. Wild sheep are far more cunning and wary than even whitetail deer, and at the end of three days of three men hunting from dark to dark in a relatively small high-fenced pasture, the grand total was two sheep, both of which I shot. One was a lucky snap-shot at a running sheep, and the other was a poor thing I found bedded down under a juniper, too sick to be able to get on its feet. As far as I know the rest of that herd is still on that ranch.

I’m sure the list of wild animal disease goes on to things I’ve never even heard of. I’m just going off of personal experience.

But in addition to diseases, animals are also subject to the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to: think of the countless times we’ve all seen wild animals going about their business on three legs.

For those of you who live in greener parts of the world, foxtail is the name we give to a ubiquitous grass here in the West that, when it dries, has a sharp, barbed point, rather like a miniature porcupine quill, and if it gets caught in an animal’s fur, it works its way in until it punctures the flesh and then continues working its way in until, in the case of domestic animals, it has to be surgically removed. It’s why after running the dogs we check them over carefully and thoroughly. I once asked our local game warden what happened to coyotes when they got foxtail in them and the answer was that they either lived in discomfort or died slowly.

And sometimes animals hurt themselves because of their own clumsiness.

The first time it ever occurred to me that an animal might be clumsy was when I was about seven or eight. I was exploring in the woods and pastures near our home when I came across the body of a red fox hanging impaled on the broken vertical branch of a sapling that had gone up through his lower jaw and into his skull. I was so stunned by the sight of the fox that it was several minutes before I chanced to look up and realized what had happened: there was a bird’s nest on one of the lower branches of a tree, and I knew in flash that the fox had jumped for the nest and the eggs or fledglings, missed, and fallen on the vertical branch.

Sometimes, like an old Laurel and Hardy movie, there is a certain humorousness to wildlife mishaps.

Hunting in Colorado, I once watched a young buck strolling along on the top of an embankment above a logging road. He stumbled and went ass-over-teakettle down the slope, jumped up, and then (I know we’re not supposed to anthropomorphize) looked around in embarrassment before trotting off down the road with great intent—a busy deer with places to go and important things to do.

Deer 011 (Small)


I also once watched a bobcat, surely one of the most graceful and athletic of all of God’s creatures, slowly and carefully stalk some unseen rodent on the side of a hill. When he finally pounced, he not only missed the rodent, but he missed his footing and did probably three full somersaults before he got his feet under him.

Bobcat 023 (Small)


And on a memorable occasion, quail hunting with General Chuck Yeager and Colonel Bud Anderson, the three of us were eating our lunch overlooking a valley and we watched two coyotes trying to catch a jackrabbit. The coyote is one of the most efficient and effective predators in the world, and when they work in pairs, or as a pack, they are unparalleled. I voiced the opinion that it wouldn’t take long before they got him.

General Yeager shook his head. “He’ll outsmart them.”

He did. In fact, it was such a comical mismatch that after a few minutes I actually began to feel sorry for the two coyotes. When they finally gave up, they sat down facing each other, yards of tongue hanging out of each of them and disgusted looks on their faces. I would have given much to be close enough to hear what they said to each other.

 Wile E. Coyote

Bald Eagle

February 1st, 2016 17 Comments

Bald eagle

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)


I have seen two bald eagles (or, more likely, one bald eagle twice) in the last three days.

The first time, the poor thing was being harassed by two ravens who followed him, like jackals trailing a lion, for a remarkably long distance. The second time, he was by himself, flying quite low, but flying like an eagle on a mission, an eagle with things to do, places to go, and other eagles to meet. And both times it made my heart leap.

I’m an unabashed patriot. I love America and believe strongly it is the greatest country the world has ever known. It gives me a thrill every time I see our flag flying; I get emotional when I hear the national anthem; I feel a burst of pride whenever I see young men or women in uniform, especially young soldiers in their dress uniforms on state occasions; I even feel proud when I see a photograph of the Capitol Building, though I’d like to wade in there with a bullwhip and a branding iron. But bald eagles especially get to me. In part, this is because they are incomparably, dramatically beautiful birds; in part it is because they are our nation’s symbol; in part it’s because they are relatively uncommon in this part of the world (in twenty-five years I’ve only seen one here on two other occasions, though I’ve been to those places in Alaska where you can see hundreds on a daily basis); and in part it’s because the first one I ever saw was with my father, so I associate them with him.

I was home from college, and I had only recently reached the stage Mark Twain (apocryphally) made famous by discussing how much his old man had grown up in seven years. My father was by then director of Gunston Hall, the museum once home to George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration Rights, and on pleasant evenings that summer after the tourists had left, my father and I would take our drinks and walk around the magnificent gardens, the towering allées of boxwood and lilac, the acres of roses and jasmine and nicotiana, the air heavy with scent and the heat of a Virginia tidewater summer. At the end of the gardens, where the land dropped down steeply to the woods and the distant Potomac, there were two gazebos, and we sitting in one of those one evening when a bald eagle sailed by, skimming over the tops of the trees, below us, so that we looked down on his back and the incredible, brilliant white of his head and tail.

It’s a rare thing ever to be in a situation or place where you can look down on the back of a raptor, and to be able to look down on the back of a bald eagle, our national symbol, while talking to my father just as I was beginning to appreciate what an extraordinary, completely unique man he was and how lucky I was to have him in my life, made it one of those moments that will warm me on my deathbed.

And later, before his untimely and much too early death, my father was able to use that sighting and the fact that there was a nesting pair in the woods at the end of Mason’s neck, to get the federal government and the state of Virginia to join forces and protect much of that land from development. If we hadn’t been sitting there that evening and hadn’t seen that eagle, he might not have been able to do it, and Mason’s neck would now look like all the rest of northern Virginia, a sprawling mishmash of subdivisions and shopping malls, all the unimaginative cookie-cutter development that passes for progress in America these days.

But we were, and he did.


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