While I was out fishing a semi urban stretch of the Fox River at the end of January, I was joined by a couple of red tailed hawks and a bald eagle. I wrote it down later like this:
Drifting up stream on the air currents came the large black shape of an eagle. It slowly cruised above the river and occasionally drifted out over the tree tops. The ducks didn’t like any of this. They all lifted off the water. Some seemed to feign an attack on the eagle, a foolhardy gesture at best, but most simply took off squawking.
Once the eagle was out of sight, a couple of red tailed hawks appeared. They seemed to be playing in the treetops feigning bites, then they would take off together to hover over the river. They never got far from each other and it continued to look like they were playing. I’ve never seen them behave like this, usually I don’t see more than one.
Even in somewhat of an urban area these birds have learned to adapt to our presence. The hawks don’t surprise me so much, I’ve been seeing them around for a long time just about everywhere I go. But for an eagle to slip right into these urban areas comes as a surprise. It’s just not something I would have ever expected.
My first sighting of an eagle on the Fox River happened along this same stretch around 2003. Along the shore runs the warmer waters of a treatment plant discharge. During the winter it’s ice free and attracts all kinds of birds. There’s an old dead tree, completely stripped of bark, where the eagle likes to sit and survey the river below. I’ve described this stretch numerous times in the past, but this will do:
For such an urban area, this stretch gives a pretty good illusion of being more remote. On the other side of the river a pretty busy road runs right along the shore. It was just far enough away that any traffic noise is pretty well muffled. Once behind an island it becomes pretty simple to ignore the urban views altogether.
The side with the warm water is a flood plain that’s never been developed. A wide open field of tall grasses, a shore line of trees that create picture perfect undercut banks. Further down the trees become more extensive and cover more of the shore and land. While walking through it, especially in the warmer months, the dense trees and brush obliterate all signs of human artifacts and for a brief time you could be anywhere that people don’t go.
The end of that day had me walking through the field back to my car. I was tracking coyote, which seemed to be tracking squirrel and raccoons. The raccoons seem to take the same paths to and from the river on a regular basis. The squirrel tracks seem to be more sporadic. I’ve heard that they never find 90 percent of the nuts they bury. Their tracks in the snow indicate that they spend a lot of time looking for that 90 percent, even if never found.
From a distance I thought I was seeing pheasant tracks cutting across my path.
When I got up on top of the tracks their size said this was no pheasant. They were as big as my hand. They came from the rivers edge and headed inland. At first I thought they might be from a blue heron, but I’ve never seen a blue heron walk inland like this. I followed the tracks and they took paths through low brush. No 4 foot tall bird would be able to do this. Then at one spot, the tracks disappeared. I looked up the tracks when I got home, definitely an eagle, either out for a stroll or on the hunt.
Further down the trail there were more tracks. These looked just like the others only smaller. This time they appeared out of nowhere and it looked like there was some kind of scuffle.
The scuffle was taken a couple of feet away into some brush. I knew these were the tracks of the red tailed hawk and it was determined to get hold of something.
And then like the eagle tracks, they were gone. Nothing walked away from this scuffle, the victor flew off.
This got me thinking about a trip through West Virginia many years ago. I was on my way to a rod and gun club outside Richmond Virginia for a week to wander woods and fish. I usually went alone and if I was lucky, I would run into no one while there. It was about two in the morning and in the West Virginia mountains I could only pick up National Public Radio, my radio listening choice anyway.
They were discussing The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry:
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I remember being bothered by this. I enjoy the peace and quiet of woods and water without the presence people. I prefer the absence of people most of the time. But the peace of wild things is a human construct. We look out at what we believe is beauty. We immerse ourselves in the silence of our surroundings. Gentle breezes rustling through trees while we lay back on a hammock can lull us into sleep.
This got me thinking, wild things don’t experience peace . . .