I’d come home past midnight from a quick trip up and back to Canada; a wedding– wonderful people I hadn’t seen in years, but a hard turnaround and I’m not getting any younger.
Five hours later the alarm is going off, the extra-annoying electronic one on my phone, which I use when I want to make absolutely certain I can’t miss it. I nab the phone and pull it back into my bed. Out beyond the blankets it’s black and cold, but I roll out and toward the clothes I’d put out the night before: next to the cast off wedding blouse and pumps, a stack of jeans, thermal shirt, waterproof steel toed boots.
The black sky is just beginning to turn deep blue at the horizon as I drive down the road to the wildlife shelter, dark lines of trees on either side forming a long vee toward the east side of the island, where the light is coming up even more.
Lynne is already there opening the van and getting crates in place, and three or four of the volunteers, and Cate.
I fall in with Lynne. “We’ve just got to get the two out of Ward D,” she tells me.
“Do you want me to get a blanket?”
“No, just the eagle gloves.”
And we head into the windowless space next to the hospital—mews the size of small box stalls, where we keep patients that should only have limited ability to move around. These two had been in the full-size flight cage up until the day before, but were transferred here to make them easier to catch this morning.
Lynne flips on the very yellow light in the runway and I open the door to the first enclosure, and the dark body of the juvenile eagle thuds into the corner.
“Easy!” Lynne mutters toward the bird, “we just have to do this—“
“And then,” I add, “It’s all going to get so much better.”
She moves steadily toward the eagle, who stands nearly thirty inches high and is starting to open its wings like it’s about to try to fly again but she’s too quick for it: she has it by the legs, at the same time trying to get one long, agitated wing folded up like a recalcitrant umbrella.
“Do you need help?”
“Head!” she says quickly, and I reach out fast to grab it from the back, turn the beak down and away from her, a good five inches of beak coming off of a head that’s the nearly the size of a soft ball. Big baby.
We ease the bird into the large flight kennel we’ve brought, then cover it with a sheet, even as the bird begins thumping against the sides in protest. Then we carry it to the van, and come back with the other empty crate for the eagle in the next mew.
The other four juvenile eagles were put in crates the night before, and now I walk up through the cold, still-dark morning to the building where they wait. I open the door to thudding from three of the crates, even though each is draped in a colored sheet and they probably can’t see me, they just know the door’s been opened; the smaller, fourth crate is quiet, though, which shouldn’t worry me but it does, so I go toward it, but before I’m within three feet of it the whole crate erupts, bouncing, the bird inside warning that it’s more than ready to take me on.
These are not birds I’ve worked with much. Several years back my focus became the shelter’s education program, less time in the clinic. Unlike previous eagles, or the coyote pups we raised into packs that we later released, I have not fed these birds every week, cleaned their mews and taken away food scraps, tracked them from smaller, to larger brown juveniles. I have, though, helped during exams, holding them while hospital staff tube-fed them when they first came in, later helping to check their body weight. When these birds were ultimately all housed together in our largest flight cage—the one the length of my house—I did go in a couple of times to assist other stewards.
And there’s something unbelievable about being in that space with them. We walk into the open, wood and wire room and the air suddenly fills with huge birds careening in different directions, talons swinging below them because the babies are so centered on just flying that they don’t think yet about tucking up their legs. Helene, a volunteer of ten years advises new people, “If they’re moving, you stop. Just stop. Wait until they settle.” You stay aware that at any moment one of these huge babies could come shooting back toward you, just over your head—or dive off one of the high perches and misjudge a turn and crash to the ground right with you in the way. So you pass quietly and rapidly through the enclosure with the plates and plates of salmon, mixed with raw chicken or rabbit, the feathers and fur left on so the eagles learn that these are the things they’ll eat in the wild. You do this for weeks, for months, maybe, larger and larger plates.
Cate is backing up her SUV and we load in two of these crates, then carry the remaining two to join the other pair we’d already loaded into the shelter’s van. The rest of us drop into our own cars and carpool, and we all begin to caravan out of the gravel parking lot.
Light is coming through more now, the sky mostly deep blue dawn color. We roll through the trees, seven thirty on a Sunday morning, no sign of anyone up, but I notice at the end of one neighbors’ driveway a yellow short haired dog, sitting, observing the vehicles passing with wilder creatures.
We get out to the main highway and head toward the ferry but the van pulls over to the side of the road, and I come in behind her:
Lynne rolls down a window: “I forgot the eagle blood—I have to go back.”
“I can go back and get it, you all head on—see you on the ferry.” And I haul ass back to the shelter, unlock the clinic, find the soft-vinyl cooler pack in the small refrigerator in the exam room, take it out to the passenger’s seat of my car. On our way up I’m making a detour to pick up my friend Heather, who lives out of state, now, and is visiting her elderly mother. Heather’s father was a beloved local veterinarian, and she grew up around all manner of animal husbandry. I know she will be very happy to manage the eagle blood.
Any release is a good day for the wildlife shelter and its volunteers: opossums, raccoons, single songbirds taken back to where they were injured and freed back into familiar territory. Eagle releases are a special experience, but in the eight years I’ve worked with the shelter this is only the second time we’ve set out more than one eagle together. These being juveniles, orphaned for varying reasons, they still need time around adults—so we’ve waited until the salmon are running in the upper Skagit River. With more than enough food and more than three months ahead of mating season, territories and boundaries ease, and the adults won’t be irritated by these younger birds—who then have the opportunity to observe them, as they all come to this abundance of fish: the salmon finishing out their life cycle, the gathering eagles in differing stages of theirs.
On the ferry I find the crew gathered on the car deck, excited and energized by the cold, clear morning—a rare fall day in the Pacific Northwest where there isn’t any rain in the forecast. We will drive nearly three hours, much of it on the freeway due north, angle east along a two-lane highway, then finally wind down through very small towns in the foothills of the Cascade mountains to a little park and boat launch by the river, where the Fish and Wildlife agent has directed us to go. He will meet us there to pick up the eagle’s blood, which he’s using for some research. He will also band the birds; each eagle will have to be removed from the crate and held while the agent uses pliers to snap a wide metal ring around its leg. Then the bird will be put back into the crate and carried down to the side of the river.
The first one is a large female; Lynne holds the talons away from the agent, one leg in each of her heavily gloved hands, while with the inside of her arms she pins the wings to the bird’s sides; still, at the sight of the open sky the eagle begins to kick and snake her head, so I step up again to hold it, keep it from stabbing at human soft parts.
The Fish and Wildlife agent measures beaks, feet, calls out numbers to an assistant.
Then, rather than put this first bird back into the crate Lynne opts to let her spill right out of her arms: a scramble of wings and struggling balance into the air, wings thrusting until the bird can feel she’s in control, and then the whole action becomes more rhythmic, and the big bird pumps up into the sky and sails over the river, flying to a far stand of leafless trees, dropping past our line of vision.
The process repeats again: measuring, numbers called out, band clamped onto the bird; this time it’s another shelter staff member, Sarah, who hold the bird while the agent does his measuring, and this time the bird is put back into the crate, which is taken down to the river. Another bird, and another—until five crates are lined up along the bank. Then one of the crowd of maybe fifteen or twenty people who’ve joined the caravan, shelter supporters and volunteers, is asked to come over and open the first of these crates.
The door is opened and there is a pause—then the eagle boots out in a series of hops and into the air, eyes focused and racing to it doesn’t know where—it also lifts up, banks left, and crosses the river into the trees.
Another one isn’t sure what to make of it: we open the crate door and nothing happens for a minute. Lynne and Sarah wait, begin to consider taking off the top, but then he hops out onto the ground in a defensive, almost fencer’s posture—looks around himself, and springs into the air, wings beating furiously.
Two, three—number four, a small male, is the only one that flies behind us, spinning into some bare trees along the side of the park road, hanging there almost like he’s overwhelmed. Everyone pauses to see what he’ll do—which right now is nothing. He is roosting, considering what could possibly have just happened to him.
We go back to release eagles five, six, and then we’re all standing along the riverbank with a line of empty crates, looking across the river at the trees, the rise of hills, the browns and faded greens of the late October Pacific Northwest.
There isn’t much to do from here. We start to pack up the van, collecting sheets and crates and gloves. The Fish and Wildlife man congratulates the staff on the health of the birds. Small groups of people chat quietly, everyone’s faces flushed from the cold and eyes bright from the experience.
Then one of us calls and we all turn to see something rise up out of the lacework of the tree canopy across the river—small in the distance it is a dark eagle, a juvenile, one of ours. It flies up against the pale gray sky and follows the river a short way, curves and heads further into the next level of hills and tall evergreen trees, following the river through the mountains.
The Skagit is fast, shallow water, different from the Midwestern rivers I grew up with, and the combinations of trees are also different: some brownish yellow here and there, but without the color of the Midwestern maples the scene looks more like late November because of the grays and browns and moss green of the ground cover and foliage. There is the same pale sky, but here it all fades into the dark, wet, almost black green of cedars and firs.
I don’t know why the bleakness of this time of year is so dear to me, why I love it so much even as I feel its barrenness and challenge; as I get older I’m much less likely to bother with why.
The eagles absolutely do not care.