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A couple of recent cool days here reminds me that as NYC is headed into autumn, summer is ending. Like Lot’s wife, I look back longingly and hope not to turn into a pillar of salt as I remember one of the highlights of the summer, a visit to one of the most beautiful spots in the world as far as I’m concerned, the Ashokan Reservoir in upstate New York. What made this visit particularly memorable was a bald eagle that flew by a few hundred feet in front of us.
The reservoir has a protected bald eagle nesting area on its banks, but rarely had we actually seen any eagles. On this particular day, however, we saw not only that one eagle close-up but afterwards, several eagles high up in the air above us, easily identifiable by the flashes of their white heads and white tail feathers, along with their high-pitched call. What was puzzling to me, however, was that we saw those eagles actively chasing away some other large wing-spanned birds, which I took at first to be turkey vultures. With the naked eye, they seemed to be dark all over, including their heads and tails, and they rode the air currents as a vulture might. What I couldn’t understand, as my wife, Linda, pointed out, was that the darker birds seemed to be sounding the same call as the white-headed bald eagles.
Do vultures have a similar call to eagles? Not that I remembered; in fact I didn’t really think of turkey vultures having much of a call at all. So what was going on? I had one of those pocket high-powered zoom cameras with me, but the birds were too high up and moving too quickly and randomly for me to get a proper fix on them.
We got into the car saddled with our little mystery. We decided to take a lazy drive down a country road that we didn’t often take, and we soon found ourselves at the Olive Free Library in Olive, NY. It was a relaxed place, where a flyer advertised that Saturday’s guided Mushroom Walk but alas, when I asked the librarian about it, the walk was already filled up. She did promise to put me on the waiting list, but she didn’t look hopeful. Disappointed, I rummaged around the rest of the library, looking for a Petersen’s guide to find out more about turkey vulture calls. But what I eventually found in the bird guide didn’t seem to match up with what we had heard. I was still confused.
Then I wandered over to the oversized book section, and there just happened to be a beautiful book of photography specifically about the eagles of the Ashokan Reservoir. I wish I could remember who the photographer and author of it was. It was such a lovely book. The author had taken gorgeous photos of a pair of eagles at the reservoir over a period of five or six years. They were always the same couple, as bald eagles tend to be monogamous. And then while turning the pages, to my amazement, I came across a photo of exactly the same scene we had seen a few hours before: white-headed eagles chasing away a bunch of turkey-vulture-looking birds. But the caption told us what was really going on: The darker birds were bald eagles too—hence the same call—but they were immatures who were trying to raid the mature eagles’ nests in order to get at the little eaglets, not ready to fly yet! The older eagles were protecting their babies, chasing the brash juvenile delinquents far away. Mystery solved and something learned. It feels so satisfying when everything falls into place like that.
We drove back to our little B&B, and I sat with my eye on the phone the rest of the afternoon and evening, waiting for the Mushroom Call, which never came in time. The disappointment, however, was ameliorated, some say, by the taste of a very delicious coffee mocha ice cream cone.