It was a typical Missouri winter day – gray, cool and windy, with no recreational potential of any kind. It was also Sunday, but nothing special was going on in town, either.
“Let’s drive to Eagle Bluffs,” I said to my husband while we were eating our breakfast – I my usual cereal and he the leftovers from a dinner party we held the night before.
“Sure,” he said and immediately reached for his binoculars.
The thing is that my husband is a wildlife lover, and since Eagle Bluffs is a state conservation area about 10 miles away from us, it is one of the places he’s always ready to go. Over the years, I have come to like that area, too, although the first time my husband took me there, I was disappointed.
Not that I expected to see parrots or flamingos flittering around the Missouri wetlands, but with a name like “Eagle Bluffs” I surely counted on seeing eagles there! In reality, though, Eagle Bluffs is a series of ponds dug into a large open field, confined between impressive sandstone bluffs and the Missouri River, and it is visited mostly by Canada geese and a variety of ducks. Also, early in the spring, white pelicans make their festive appearance. As for eagles, after numerous visits to the area, we finally (!) stumbled on an eagle’s nest, hidden high in the tree that grows on a strip of land that is surrounded by ponds on all sides. Since then, we periodically check up on it, although it’s rare that we see its occupants.
I must admit, I love seeing eagles. To me, a person who lived without any citizenship for five years (the Russians stripped me of theirs when I applied for an exit visa, and the Americans took their time to make sure that I’d be a solid citizen (just kidding!)), the bald eagle represents a new beginning. And, since I rarely see them, every time I do, it seems special. (In fact, my husband and I saw one calmly gliding over our neighborhood on the day of Obama’s first victory!)
Halfway to Eagle Bluffs, I began regretting my idea. First of all, we had recently had a snow storm, and the wetlands might still be frozen, in which case we wouldn’t see anything there. And even if we did get lucky, so what? While it’s true that my husband has nice binoculars (my present to him for his birthday) and I have a Canon SLR camera with me, I don’t have the right lenses for wildlife photography, so I cannot take good pictures of birds anyway.
“I really need better lenses,” I said to my husband, driving carefully along the curvy road. “My lenses are not sharp enough. You yourself say that my photos don’t look professional.”
“There could be other reasons for that beside lenses,” my husband mumbled, not taking his eyes off the road.
“Like what?” I said. “I’m doing as well as my lenses allow! And the camera, too. If I am to improve, I need a full-frame camera and L-series lenses!”
Of course, the truth is that I don’t have to “improve.” I’m not a professional photographer who must spend thousands of dollars on expensive equipment. Still, as obsessive as I am, I may one day do just that, so it’s important to prepare my husband for that possibility.
“I need telephoto lenses, too,” I started again when we turned off the local highway, but my husband interrupted me.
“The water is still frozen,” he said. “We won’t see much today.”
“Let’s see the eagle’s nest, then.” I said.
We parked the car and hung our equipment around our necks – he his binoculars and I my camera with its woefully insufficient lens – and walked toward the nest. It was still cool, and the sun seemed to be making up its mind about whether it should break through the clouds and light up the world underneath, or pull the clouds up, like a blanket, and take another nap.
The nest was in its usual place, hidden safely up in the big old tree. Yet it was empty.
“It must be too early in the season,” my husband said.
“It cannot be too early,” I said firmly. “This is their time for nesting.”
“I don’t see any signs of that,” he sighed. “Should we go back?”
“No, let’s walk around,” I said. For exercise. And we put up our jacket hoods, and pulled on our gloves.
We walked for about a mile, between the bluffs and a creek on one side and the ponds on the other. Yet we saw no birds. Not even obnoxiously honking Canada geese or scurrying around coots. Disappointed, we turned back. When we were passing the area with the nest, my husband said, “Too bad. No eagles this time.”
But, I seemed to notice some movement there.
“Are you sure the nest is empty?” I said. “Look through your binoculars.”
“It is,” he said, and at that moment, a white-headed bird landed on a branch by the nest – a bald eagle.
“Look!” I shouted, grabbing my camera and feverishly adjusting its settings. “An eagle!”
Whether it was my excitement that spooked the bird or something else, the eagle took off. He made several circles high above our heads and vanished behind a strip of tall trees on the other side. Had we been there a minute later, we’d never have known that he was there at all.
“Oh, no!” I cried, pulling my husband by the sleeve – he was still pointing his binoculars in the direction of the bird. He put the binoculars down and said, “Should we drive home now?”
“Don’t you think he’ll come back?”
We walked around for another 30 minutes, but the eagle never returned. Feeling tired, we headed back to our car. Before I opened the passenger’s door, I glanced toward the bluffs on the other side, which, suddenly, erupted with a fuzzy, slowly moving cloud.
“What’s that?” I said, puzzled. And then it struck me. It wasn’t a cloud. It was … a huge flock of white-and-black birds!
“Pelicans!” I screamed. “Look, pelicans!”
The birds flew higher and higher and soon they, too, disappeared behind the trees on the other side of the wetlands. We followed them – first driving as far as we could and then walking quietly to the pond where they landed. I was walking first, my camera at ready, and my husband followed me with his binoculars. We were still far away when the birds noticed us. First, they began stirring, then several of them took off, and later yet, others began following their example. Soon, the whole pond exploded with white and black colors, while the sky filled with flapping wings and the cry of birds.
Excited, I kept pressing the shutter.
“They are not pelicans,” I heard my husband say behind me.
“No? What are they?” I turned to him, immediately disappointed.
“They are snow geese.”
“Well, that’s not so bad,” my husband said. “We’ve never seen snow geese before.”
He was correct. It was the first time I saw snow geese, and although they were nothing like pelicans, they were beautiful in their own “geesey” way.
“You’re right,” I said, and we started walking.
The sun hid behind the cloud, seemingly for good, and the wind picked up, but, I no longer felt disappointed. True, we saw the eagle only briefly, and we didn’t see any pelicans. But, we saw something new, and, as Forest Gump put it, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”
P.S. While I was looking at my pictures at home, I suddenly noticed a white head peeking from the eagle’s nest. It wasn’t empty after all! I looked again. The head appeared small and fuzzy, but it was definitely an eagle. Can you spot it? It’s not very clear, is it? You see, I really need a better lens.