The Way of an Eagle

by Melvin Leavitt

Assistant Editor

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    “There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea four which I know not: the way of an eagle in the air. …” (Prov. 30:18–19)

    The two eagles gulped altitude with their broad, golden wings until the cliff line was far below them. Then they closed their wings and dropped out of the sky, spinning downward at a wind-warping speed of almost 200 miles per hour. Just as the juniper and sagebrush rushed up to crush them, they spun the world on end with a flick of their seven-foot wings and shot upward again. Spiraling up on a thermal, they banked away from each other and were soon a valley apart. Then, pivoting in midair, they rushed together like two warring biplanes, their wingbeats cracking echoes off the cliff face. Just inches short of disaster they casually palmed the air aside and brushed feathers as they blasted past each other. They flashed together again, flipping on their backs and displaying their talons in mock combat. They soared and dived, playing the wind like a violin, spinning gravity like a yo-yo. One moment they were sailing ships, running with the breeze or tacking against it. The next they were jet fighters, dive-bombing their shadows. They were more free in their ocean of air than any fish in water or any man on land.

    But one man on the land watched them—with his eyes hardly comprehending, with his camera clicking like a telegraph, and long afterward with a notebook and pencil, remembering. Kent Keller, of Orem, Utah, had seen golden eagle courtship flights before, but like any reasonable person, he could only fully believe it when he was seeing it.

    Perhaps it is partly this aura of impossibility that draws Kent to eagles, just as it has drawn poets, prophets, and emperors for centuries.

    Actually, it all started with snakes. From the day he was born, Kent seemed to delight in all wild creatures, but snakes were his first real love. As a very young boy, he turned his backyard into a reptile menagerie with cages full of crawling snakes, gila monsters, horned toads, lizards, and just about any other tail-twitching belly-crawler he could find. As soon as he learned to read, he went hunting for reptiles in the library too.

    But a new love was waiting in the wings, and at 12 years of age, Kent was to have his eyes snatched from the delightful snake-harboring ground to the wide, blue, eagle-bearing sky.

    One day on a camping trip Kent’s Scoutmaster pointed at a dead cottonwood tree and said, “Hey, guys, there are two eagles!” The two golden eagles perched on skeletal limbs burned their image into an unexposed surface of Kent’s brain and filled his life’s appointment book all in an instant. He came. He saw. He was conquered.

    But finding eagles isn’t all that easy until you learn where to look, and it was two years before Kent was able to make a house call. One rainy afternoon in early May he stepped onto a tiny protruding ledge that overhung more than 150 feet of sheer emptiness. As he peered over the edge, the sun burst through the rain clouds, spotlighting the golden hackles of a female eagle on her nest about ten yards down. Seeing Kent, she soared silently away but left behind two eaglets who sat cheeping at him in a blaze of downy sunshine.

    Kent says of that instant: “At that moment I was so inspired by the beauty and majesty of the eagles that I felt more alive myself. The air smelled fresher, and the stream far below sparkled more brightly than before. I had simply opened my eyes and had really seen and felt what was around me.”

    From eagles Kent’s love spread to all raptors (birds of prey). The fierce independence and aristocratic bearing of these aerial hunters caught his imagination and sent him out during every spare moment to follow their flight and study their habits.

    He went to the library too, hunting these feathered sky-riders among the quiet stacks of books. He learned, both from books and experience (he doesn’t believe a book until he has proved it in nature) about the different raptors—where they nested, where they hunted, how they hunted, what their prey was, how they mated, and even how they flew. Before long he could see a bird silhouetted gnat-small on the horizon and name it by its flight pattern. Every time he saw a bird or visited a nest, he took careful scientific notes of everything he observed. He has several PhD dissertations lying unwritten in his notebooks.

    During his junior year in high school, Kent dropped out of football and basketball to allow more time for raptor study. He traveled miles and miles searching out nests and roosting areas. He developed the climbing ability of a mountain goat and the stamina of a mustang. Leaving home Friday night after school or well before dawn Saturday morning, getting home well after dark Saturday night, and spending much of the time in between climbing steep mountains at a brisk trot, he found many raptor nests and gradually became a legitimate expert in the field. Weekdays after school also found him in the hills as often as possible.

    One of his most rewarding experiences came one winter after a month-long search when he found the winter roosting grounds of bald eagles from Canada and Alaska. “I stood alone in two feet of snow near the bottom of an isolated canyon in west-central Utah, my eyes searching the sky for signs of life. Suddenly, as if by magic, they came, one by one, in pairs, and in small groups. Bald eagles dropped from the tall pine trees to the south and were gradually caught up in thermal drafts of air. Slowly circling higher and higher, traveling on wings of up to eight feet in length, they drifted west in a steady stream of traffic across the sky.”

    That summer he carried back-breaking loads of wood and canvas up a towering mountain in order to build a blind from which to observe these eagles during the coming winter. When the snows were deep on the mountain a few months later, he spent hours watching them up close. “I have often crawled out of a warm bed at 3:00 A.M. and hiked up tall mountains through three feet of snow in the dark. Then I have sat cramped and numbed in a dark blind until mid-afternoon. By that time I have begun to wonder what is wrong with me. Suddenly, only 30 feet away and halfway up a scraggly old pine tree, a beautiful bald eagle has landed, and I wonder no longer.”

    Kent interrupted his eagle watching to accept a mission call to the Kentucky Louisville Mission, but on his return he was on the road again checking nests.

    Kent, like other students of raptors, is especially interested in the predators’ nesting behavior because this is the cycle that stands between the species and extinction.

    There is also the mystery of the eternal interplay between the flight and the nest, freedom and responsibility. “An eagle’s freedom is exciting. They can leave the ground any time they want and ride the wind, and yet, like people, they’re tied down with responsibilities. When an eagle has eggs, she’s on the nest for 45 days, and she may leave it for only an hour a day. Eagles must follow their food supply too. They have certain laws they have to live within, but when they get up there and ride that wind, there’s not much that can touch them.”

    In Utah, golden eagles begin their courtship flights in January or February, lay eggs from late February through March, and then incubate them from 42 to 45 days, after which the eaglets stay in the nest for from eight to ten weeks before taking to their wings. Kent warns that anyone interested in eagles should simply stay away from the nests during egg laying and incubation because during that period adult eagles are most prone to abandon the nest. Whenever a human being approaches her nest, the female eagle will invariably leave it until he is gone, and even if she returns, exposure to heat or cold can easily destroy the eggs. After the eaglets have hatched, the nest can be safely visited for very short periods of time, but after the eaglets are about seven weeks old, there is serious danger of frightening them off the nest before they are able to fly.

    First flight is as breathtaking an experience for eagles as it is for people, and the proud lords of the skyways start out as bumbling, incompetent aviators. They too often crash and break a wing on the first flight and become easy prey to starvation or some four-legged predator. Kent once saw a ten-week-old eagle make its first flight and remembers: “He hopped off the nest as if he knew what he was doing, but all of a sudden he was speeding down toward the opposite cliff and losing altitude fast. You could see the shock in his eyes. His wings were spread out, his primary and secondary feathers flapping back and forth in the breeze. His head was moving back and forth watching the ground and looking back up at the nest—looking everywhere at once. He looked as if he was wondering what he had gotten himself into, whether he had really blown it, but you could also feel his exhilaration and the thrill of his first flight. He dropped down to the mouth of the canyon and hit an updraft that just pushed him right up out of sight. I found him the next day sitting on a tree unhurt.”

    Kent realized from day one that it would be unthinkable to put an eagle in a cage like his childhood pet lizards, so he found another way of capturing the wild, free beauty of these magnificent creatures—photography. He seldom goes anywhere without his camera and his 400, 150, and 50 mm lenses. Over the years he has accumulated a fine collection of raptor slides and has organized them into several slide shows guaranteed to make you sad you were not born an eagle. He presents these shows to many groups and enjoys sharing them with people in rest homes and with handicapped children. It is his way of giving wings to people who are the most earthbound.

    “I love eagles,” he says, “but people are the most important part of that love. It wouldn’t mean a thing to me if I went out there and filmed all those great things and didn’t have anybody to share it with.”

    In photographing raptors, Kent has developed a skill that few people share. If you don’t believe it, go out sometime and photograph a bird moving in and out of focus at eye-blurring speed across blue sky, white clouds, black mountainsides, and blazing patches of snow, all in a few seconds. You’ll be very lucky even to find the thing in your telephoto lens, much less focus it and get the right exposure.

    Kent’s delight in all living things has never faded. He still can’t pass up a lizard without stopping and watching. A porcupine is still a miracle. A turtle is still a masterpiece. A raven or a meadowlark is still breathtaking, and snakes still make him shiver as good as they make most of us shiver bad. There are no commonplace animals for Kent; they all bring him joy just by being. It is significant that on the gun rack in his pickup he has hung only a pair of binoculars.

    But in spite of his reverence for all things, those binoculars are filled mostly with raptors right now, and Kent has been repaid for his thousands of hours of work with some heart-thumping experiences—a squadron of bald eagles on a winter day, the soaring rise of a Swainson’s hawk, the screaming dive of a prairie falcon, the puppet-like unreality of baby owls. And speaking of owls, he had the privilege of being knocked backwards off a 30-foot cliff by a frightened great horned owl and of having his face bloodied by the fierce attack of another not-at-all frightened member of the species.

    He especially remembers one top-of-the-world moment on a peak high in a remote canyon. The granite walls were so buffeted by a tree-toppling wind that day that he had to lie flat to avoid being blown away like a leaf. A golden eagle came floating down onto the highest point on the peak, sorting out the changing, punishing wind with his wings, and somehow keeping an even keel. He stood there a moment looking regally around at the whole world lying beneath his talons as if inspecting his kingdom. “He only touched down for a few seconds, and then he simply opened his wings and turned them back into the wind. He shot up and out of sight like a rocket without ever flapping a wing.”

    No one but Kent can say how many hours of sleep or basketball games or TV shows that experience was worth to him, but he isn’t complaining.

    There is another aspect to Kent’s studies beyond the intellectual and aesthetic. Living with these magnificent birds has strengthened his testimony of his Creator. One winter day he took an atheist friend to a canyon where he knew there would be eagles. As they stood in the snow watching some 50 bald eagles soar above them, Kent looked at his open-mouthed friend and said quietly, “That didn’t just happen by accident.”

    “Boy, I know it!” his friend said, his voice small with awe.

    If anybody wants to know why eagles are worth saving, maybe that’s why.

    Photos by Kent Keller and Jed Clark

    Some scientists believe that an eagle’s eyes have a magnification power of ten

    A female golden eagle leaves her nest as Kent approaches

    Kent examines a ferruginous hawk nestling

    A great horned owl nestling. When adult, these silent-winged raptors rule the night sky

    Long-eared owls

    A month-old eaglet eyes Kent suspiciously

    Kent will climb just about anywhere in order to get a picture

    A bald eagle glides over a snowy canyon

    Ferruginous hawk nestlings

    A red-tailed hawk lands on a juniper branch

    Many bald eagles leave their Canadian nesting grounds to winter in Utah

    This eaglet will first leave the nest when it is about nine or ten weeks old

    Found injured, this red-tailed hawk was raised and released by one of Kent’s friends