Location: Saranac River, New York and Bighorn River, Montana
Two summers ago, while paddling a canoe down the Saranac River in the Adirondack Park, I glided under a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in a tall oak tree by the riverbank. I was so excited! I grabbed my camera and began snapping pictures. It was my first chance to photograph this iconic symbol of the United States. A Bald Eagle was a rare sighting in the Adirondacks when I was a kid in the 1960’s, and though population levels are increasing, it is still a treat to see one there.
My partner, a Montanan, in the back of the canoe was less enthusiastic. He had just hooked a five-pound bass, and I was shirking my paddling duties in favor of what he termed a flying rat. In his home state, Bald Eagles were common scavengers. Now that I live in Montana too, I understand his side of the story. Bald Eagles are more common here, though they are more apt to eat a rodent than to act like one. In fact, these bold-looking symbols of freedom are really regal scavengers. They commonly survey riverbanks and open fields for their next meal, which might be fresh fish or a field mouse they’ve nabbed in their impressive talons, but they’re just as likely to fend off the Ravens from a road-kill carcass. If I were a Raven, I wouldn’t mess with a Bald Eagle. Its hooked yellow beak is specially designed for ripping into flesh.
Last week, while fly-fishing on the Bighorn River, I spied two Bald Eagles in a cottonwood tree. The pair was content to watch me cast a line for over two hours. Fishless, I eventually hiked back to my car, but I wondered whether they would have swooped down for a closer look if I had pulled a feisty trout from the chilly water.