This weekend I drove 280 miles to spend an evening with some good friends. It was worth every mile in the laughter therapy alone. An added bonus was the opportunity to spend some time in the car - just me and the dog- thinking and pondering while traveling through some great country, as well as a morning wandering along the river as the sun illuminated a few days worth of results from frost building fog. I always appreciate any time I get to spend visiting with my Mom too and this time I didn't have to share that time with anyone else - an added bonus.
I have gotten to know the stretch of highway I travel between Billings and Fort Peck quite well. A couple of winters ago I drove it twice a week. I had started a new job in Billings, but the rest of my life was still in Fort Peck. Each drive was a single frame in a stop action feature that now in retrospect forms a movie of a particularly brutal winter that was slowly defeated by the advancing spring time and not soon enough. There were frames dominated by blowing snow and completely white landscapes and latter frames defined by soaked landscapes and raging prairie streams and rivers. The main actors in this drama were the pronghorn I observed each trip trying to survive long enough to intersect the advancing spring before their bodies ran out of any source of energy they could eke from the landscape or themselves.
This trip, particularly my return trip on Sunday, was dominated by raptors. On Saturday morning I took a walk near the Missouri River after the omnipresent fog of late had lifted to reveal a landscape gilded in heavy white frost. There weren't many birds around.
A few Redheads on the kids fishing pond that is kept ice-free by an aerator and more waterfowl, including some Canada Geese, were present on the open river, but there were no passerines to be found in the buffaloberry thickets or cottonwoods along the trail. But there were eagles. Bald Eagles - and quite a few. I counted about 50 in the immediate area, but made no distinction between adults and immatures. Today Dad counted 43 adults and 31 immatures in this same area.
That afternoon I encountered my first snowy owl of this winter season. An immature that was perched on a lightpole on top of Fort Peck Dam.
On my way to and from Fort Peck I encountered a large number Rough-legged Hawks. They are a standard sight each winter with particular stretches of highway noted for the presence of these visitors from the Arctic. I also was able to find this adult Prairie Falcon perched along the roadside.
The raptors that really captured my attention this trip though were the Golden Eagles. I don't remember how many I observed on my way north, but on my return trip I observed at least 25 individuals - both adults and immature birds- but mostly adults, including a few obvious pairs perched near each other. Sometimes they were on a powerpole but a large number were observed perched on bluffs, gumbo knobs, and rock outcrops that dominate this country. The presence of these distinctive profiles perched on these natural vantage points has always made this landscape for me. There is something deeply comforting to know that this country is still big enough to keep eagles.
Others, however, apparently don't think so. On a small approach off the highway I found an adult female bird lying on her breast in the gravel and short grass. The posture was distinctive and depressing. I knew the bird was dead, and I also knew the she hadn't died from a vehicle collision - the posture is not indicative of the violent rendering that vehicles inflict on large birds. When I rolled her over it was apparent that poison was not the culprit either - one of her legs had been nearly severed by a bullet that eventually killed her. I traced the blood trail back to the gate post where she had been sitting when she was shot and I could see the spray of blood in the snow behind the post. She was still gorgeous, even in death. Burnished golden hackles etched into the rich brown of her nape. And the feet - massive yellow cable and black stiletto ends - each deadly appendage emerging from the feathered mass of the body like snakes from Medusa's head. I have trapped and handled a number of Golden Eagles, but every time I see one up close I am awed by the overt presence of power that emanates from feet not much smaller than my hands (and on a few occasions I have felt that power directly and then the awe transcends to borderline fright).
Although we have certainly come a long way in our understanding of the ecological role of raptors and predators in general, the dead birds I find like this remind me that there are plenty of others that still have a much different perspective. It makes me wonder how many birds like this one are left lying in the dirt away from the highway. It was a rather depressing end to an otherwise enjoyable weekend.
I did get to see coyote this weekend though. See if you can find him too.