0600 – It’s still dark when the alarm goes off. If I can get my feet on the floor I’m fine, but that first step is the hardest, especially when I know that it’s well below freezing outside. I dress in layers, gather gear, and make coffee, and I’m on the road before 0700, headed west on I-84 into the beginning of sunrise.
0830 – I arrive at Plank Road, on the banks of the Mongaup River where it flows into the Rio Reservoir. This is prime eagle territory, especially in the winter, and most especially a cold winter, such as this one. The reservoir has frozen and the ice extends partway up the river, farther so than I’ve seen before. The water remains open around the mid-stream riffles and extends up to the dam. The eagles – and there are about five of them – are all in pine trees on the far side of the river, sitting hunched, feathers fluffed.
It’s three degrees outside, despite the sun, and the wind is howling; it whips down from the east, over the hill and across the road to the river, carrying billows of snow with each gust, rocking the Jeep, and sending the pines to swaying. The two eagles that I have a clear view of, in the photo at top, are both juveniles.
After a season away from eagleing, it takes a few moments to remember how to find them in the trees. Adults are easy to spot, as their pure-white heads stand out, orbs hovering above the branches, distinctive even amid snow. Juveniles, on the other hand, are a masterful example of camouflage, their brown coloring matching the forest around them. I can’t tell you how often I’ve spotted a single eagle, only to scan the tree through the camera and find two or even three more sitting within a few feet. Sometimes I find even more later, at home, while reviewing the photos.
But soon my eyes and brain begin to communicate properly, and remember how to spot eagle shapes amid the branches, and one acclimated, the eagles almost pop out from their surroundings.
0930 – I’ve been on the Plank for an hour now and nothing is happening. There are four juveniles and one adult, and aside from one juvenile’s pass over the river, none have taken flight, much less engaged in any fishing in the water below. My guess is that the wind is too strong – watching the juvenile make his pass, it was clear that he was working hard to overcome the gusts. Given the extreme cold, you’d think that they’d be hunting more, trying to reclaim the calories they’re burning just to stay warm. But not this morning.
0945 – it’s been just over an hour, and I’m becoming both bored and cold. Eagle-watching is a crap shoot; I’ve seen some spectacular displays in this very spot, and I’ve had my share of days like this, where I stare at the eagles and they ignore me. I give in and start the Jeep, cranking the heat as I drive away, back to the Mongaup blind five minutes away. There are a couple of cars at the blind and I know that anyone standing inside is getting hammered by the wind. The Mongaup blind is an exercise in frustration; any eagles in the nearby trees are always in dense shadow, they rarely land on the ice directly in front of the blind, and the wind always howls through. I don’t bother stopping.
1030 – I’m standing on the Zane Grey boat launch in Lackawaxen, PA, at the convergence of the Lackawaxen and Delaware Rivers. There’s an Eagle Institute volunteer stationed there and we chat for a moment; he informs me that his latest reading gives a windchill of -2 degrees, and I believe it.
There are no eagles at Zane Grey – there rarely are, and I don’t always bother stopping on my eagle-seeking trips, due to a low historical success rate (although two or three times an eagle has perched in a pine directly over the parking lot, making for great close-up photos). Today my interest is drawn by the rivers themselves; the Delaware is largely frozen, large swaths of it solid ice from shore to shore. The Lackawaxen has open water at its outflow, but the Delaware closes in around it within a hundred feet, finally freezing solid amid a tumble of ice floes, big angular pieces that pile up against the river bank and each other. Looking up river, past the convergence, I watch as the wind picks up loose snow and twirls it into dust devils on the ice, before dropping it again.
1045 – the Eagle Institute volunteer suggested I try Ten Mile Point, a few miles north on the NY side of the Delaware. I’ve never heard of it, but he assures me that it’s been a more active eagle site this winter, so I cross the river again and drive ten minutes north, pulling into a boat launch site.
The Delaware here is much the same as it was to the south; mostly frozen, with a few open pools in spots where riffles or small rapids keep the ice from taking hold. When I arrive there are three eagles sitting around one of these holes in the ice; they are juveniles and sit on the ice for only a few minutes before taking off and flying upstream to perch in trees on the far shore. I manage to grab the photo above, which is utter crap.
I watch for a few minutes, and even get out of the Jeep and hike along a trail that follows the river upstream. It isn’t too bad if you stay out of the wind, but anytime that you are exposed to it, it becomes uncomfortable, even with all the layers I’m wearing.
1100 – I cross the Delaware for the forth time today, passing through Lackawaxen on my way back to I-84 and home. Two hours of driving for about two hours on-site, and little to show for it. I’ll end up with better landscape photos today than I will eagle photos. But some days are like that.