The first outdoor encounter I can remember actually happened indoors. Grade school. I was 8. We came in from recess, smelling like the cold mud and wet grass of early spring thaw.
We pitched our rain jackets on hallway hooks and lined up. I was painfully shy and fiercely quiet so I easily fell in line as our redheaded teacher, Miss Dixon, asked. My obedience put me at the head of the order, which also put me on the front row once we reached the gym where we sat crisscross applesauce on the tiled floor.
We all had outside on our shoes. I knew this because due to my shy tendencies, I had a formidable relationship with my own shoes. I always looked down at them so I didn’t have to make eye contact with you. I figured if I couldn’t see you, you couldn’t see me. Seems silly now, but it worked well when I was little.
I was picking beige blades of grass out of my loafer bottoms when a man wearing clothes of the same brown shade walked into the gym. I heard gasps around me and decided the sound effects warranted my attention more than my grassy shoes did. I looked up and saw an ordinary man wearing a wide-brim hat on his head and a tree patch on his sleeve. That ordinary man was holding something extraordinary. A bald eagle. Sugar white head, chocolate brown body and banana yellow eyes. I had no idea who the guy was, but I clearly remember his first words to us.
“Take a good look at this bird,” he’d said. “It’s the last time you will see it. Bald eagles will disappear by the time you grow up.”
My timid eyes took in the bird’s bold eyes and I was dumbfounded. I said to myself, “If something this magnificent isn’t going to make it here, how on earth am I going to make it?”
I didn’t know anything about some list for disappearing animals or the pesticide problem that put bald eagles on that list, but I knew I was looking at something I wanted more kids to see. Including my own children who were still decades away from the day I sat on that gym floor staring at a bird with its talons wrapped around a biologist’s arm.
The sight of that bird and the statement about it disappearing stayed with me as I grew up and developed my desire to be a messenger for the masses. This world of ours hosts magnificent stories, especially natural resource related stories, and I wanted to be the one to spread the word. I also wanted to do what everyone said a shy little girl couldn’t do.
I wanted to be a journalist in the desperate way humans need to breathe so I signed one TV contract after another while moving around the country for news reporting jobs. With every career move, I shed more of my quiet self.
Now I talk to countless strangers every day. I explore unfamiliar territory year round. I cover the outdoors: the fun parts and the fights. My shy self sometimes sneaks out when my leg shakes during a live shot, but for the most part, I can interview anyone about anything in any place and I’ll do it while looking them right in the eye. Just as bold as that bald eagle I saw when I was in third grade.
Thirty springs later, I’m ankle deep in mud with Michael Whitfield.
“Every spring there’s that anticipation of seeing if such and such eagle is still around,” says Whitfield, Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Project principal researcher for Idaho. “If they’re successfully nesting and if they survive.”
Whitfield started banding bald eagles in Idaho more than 30 years ago. Right about the same time I was staring at a big bird in a school gym in Utah. Back then, there were barely a dozen bald eagle pairs nesting along the South Fork of the Snake River in eastern Idaho. Now, Whitfield keeps track of more than 80 nests by putting leg bands on baby baldies for tracking purposes.
“They’re just a majestic bird. I’m entranced,” Whitfield says. “The more I watch them, the more mystery there is and the more I want to learn.”
It’s been 30 years since I saw a bald eagle. Whitfield is ending my dry spell and proving that wide-brim-hat biologist from way back when wrong. His assistant, Sue Miller, is with us. She’s a climber, but on this day she is scrambling over bark instead of boulders. She’s on her way to a bald eagle nest sitting several hundred feet above Palisades Reservoir.
“I do feel sometimes like I’m intruding on their lives a little bit climbing into the trees,” says Miller, field biologist. “But I realize it’s an important part of the biology work we do being able to band the young and potentially seeing them later on in life.”
There’s a nesting pair of bald eagles raising one eaglet in a nest birds built back in the 1980s. Miller is sitting in the nest in a matter of minutes. The anxious adults circle like desperate vultures and yell like angry parents. It’s a scene I need to capture, but I must stop working and stare if only for a moment.
The white-headed bird with banana yellow eyes is circling over my head. It’s not happy to see me, but I sure do love seeing it. I grew up from 8 and out of shy and this is the elusive bird. Its extended wings and soaring screams are my personal, spectacular reward.
“The parents fly around above the nest a lot,” she says. “They’re constantly complaining at you making a lot of loud vocalization while you’re there and waiting for you to leave.”
The new eagle can’t fly yet so it’s still in the nest when Miller settles in. She carefully wraps the bird and lowers it to the ground in a canvas bag. Whitfield is waiting for it. So am I.
“It’s a tremendous success story for a lot of people’s efforts in managing their habitat and managing the animals,” he says. “This place is incredibly rich in the diversity of flora and fauna.”
After three decades of research, Whitfield still sees bald eagles as mysterious. The bird he’s taking out of the bag is no exception. Its plumage is unusual. Instead of the common all black coloring of young bald eagles, the six-week-old bird is speckled black and white. Its talons also toggle between black and white. Whitfield quickly records the first feather variation discovered at Palisades Reservoir.
“I’m entranced. The more I watch bald eagles, the more mystery there is,” he says. “I’m starting to feel like after 30 years I understand them a little bit, but there’s a lot more still to learn.”
The South Fork of the Snake River is a stronghold for bald eagles in the West and Whitfield has banded hundreds of bald eagles in Southeastern Idaho over the years. He’s still following birds he banded more than 20 years ago. Now he has a color morph to follow as he bands the bird’s leg and tucks it carefully back into the bag for a rope ride up the tree. My eyes, and my lens, follow his every move.
“They are fragile. You can damage some of their wing feathers if you don’t handle them right,” Miller says. “You want to fold their wings in like an accordion and grab their feet so they don’t injure you then gently put them in the bag.”
The banding process takes about an hour per bird. Miller stays in the nest during that time. She inspects the bones and feathers scattered about and on calm days when the tree doesn’t sway, she takes in the view. The birds are known for finding the finest lookouts.
“Every nest I’ve been in has a magnificent view,” Whitfield says. “Eagles pick the biggest structure that’s available. They pick a high place where they can see a long ways. You get a whole different perspective of the world from an eagle nest.”
Miller uncovers the bird and places it in its perfect perch then she ropes a route down the towering Douglas fur. The adult bald eagles return to their eaglet and they probably think they’ve won. They raised enough ruckus to run off the humans. In a way, they’re right. Now that the bird is banded, the humans won’t be back. They can track from afar while the wild does its thing as it should be free to do.
“People recognize the bald eagle for the majesty that it is,” Whitfield says. “The fact that it’s our national symbol wasn’t an accident. Bald eagles are symbols of the wildness of this place. I think we need to do all we can to sustain this resource.”
Bald eagles successfully flew away from the Endangered Species List in 2007. They’re recovered in healthy numbers nationwide and not only did I see a bald eagle in the wild with Whitfield, I touched one while it was banded and I’ve seen countless more since then.
As for my shy side, it’s played off as well mannered in media circles. I still have grass in my shoes and I’m covering stories about a bird that didn’t disappear.
Behind the scenes:
Bald eagles nest near Millgate’s neighborhood. The pair hatches one to two eaglets annually. The rare raptor Millgate saw once as a little girl is the same bird her little boys now see once a day.