"Some call it madness to search for the Grail." --John Lennon
The Holy Grail to birders, and raptor lovers especially, is Aquila chrysaetos, aka the Golden Eagle. North America's largest Eagle is an occasional visitor to New York State, but to see them anywhere Downstate is exceedingly rare. In fact the only place where they are on occasion spotted, is nestled amongst the rolling foothills of Dutchess County in a place called Stissing Mountain. Driving out along 199 past dairy and Christmas tree farms, I scanned the terrain for any signs of raptors. There were absolutely none to be found, not even the occasional redtailed hawk or Cooper's. In the distance a group of raptors kettled above a hill but soon disappeared. I reckoned I would have a chance to get into position somewhere to watch them fly out. After miles of hiking I was covered in sweat and utterly alone on a freezing hill. The trees groaned as the wind brushed past them, like a rude commuter. It was gut check time. Physically I was very close exhaustion, mentally I was confused and unfocused, but emotionally, the excitement I felt at being so close to this bird, was near ecstasy. I had come so far and there was no turning back. As I caught my breath and adjusted my camera settings in the dark pines, I could hear deer crunching through snow. Behind the ridge on my right, a turkey clucked loudly. And in the distance were the sounds of Pileated Woodpeckers drumming. Everywhere in this forgotten wood was a presence of an ancient rhythm, circulating like a heart, faithfully, year after year. With that I turned up the hill, following a deer track through the snow. Emerging from the Pines I found myself near the top of a ridge. A redtailed hawk keeyar-ed close by. And again. I found a beautiful dark redtailed slicing just over the hill. It was soon joined by another hawk, then another, then another. Trying to get a shot through the branches was near impossible, but I did get this juvenile coming over the trees.
When I got to the top, I could see a group of about 20 ravens down in the creek, they appeared to be on a carcass. The red-tailed hawks continued to swirl as they drove off the eagle and I felt a presence emerge from the trees as their call elevated to a fever pitch. Steadily, the juvy Golden flew right past me at eye level. As it passed I could see that it regarded me casually, then continued on, non-plussed.
The red-tails looked like robins next to it!
After this, it dipped down behind the hill. The next time I saw it was as it crested over Stissing Mountain. This definitely was my best birding experience ever. Not because of the pictures (although I am stoked), nor the fact that this is more proof that New York State still provides some of the best birding in the World. It is the fact that I succeeded on my quest to realise my dream. And for that faith and determination, I was acknowledged by Spirit and that fills me with a gratitude that is the real reward. And that, is the Grail, as symbolized by the great Golden Eagle.