I was mezmerized by the first pair of golden eagles I saw when I was 11 years old. It was as if they reached out and sank their ebony talons into my soul and have never loosened their grip.
Now 45 years later I am still on my eagle journey and have banded 1,928 young eagles (eaglets) on nests in Utah. That is what I was doing on June 1, 2012. I had climbed a steep mountain side, rappelled down a cliff and placed an aluminum band on a male eaglet on Lake Mountain 35 miles south of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Then on June 21st a human caused fire was started at the north end of Lake Mountain. Over 5,500 acres burned. Parts of two cities were evacuated. Because of a sever drought wildfires started early in 2012. As the fire raged I wondered and worried about the eaglet I had banded on Lake Mountain.
I returned on June 28th when the fire was extinguished. I checked the nest cliff through my spotting scope and soon realized the nest had burned. The eaglet was too young to fly. As I hiked to the cliff through the ash I imagined him helpless and unable to escape the flames and chocking acrid smoke that had raged across the mountain. And I imagined his parents circling overhead unable to save him.
I was hoping to recover the band and document the loss of the eaglet and nest. When I reached the cliff I saw there was not a single stick left of the nest. All that remained was a scorched black mark where the nest had been and where it had smoldered for days.
I started searching the ground for the band. I moved toward a burnt juniper tree and was shocked to see the eaglet standing behind it. He was alive but badly burned. His once beautiful flight and tail feathers were mostly gone. His feet and beak were burned as were many of his body contour feathers. He had literally been engulfed in flames and jumped from the nest as it burned.
His nest was on a small cliff and he only fell 25 feet but the hillside was very steep and he would have tumbled at least 100 feet down the mountain. Rolling down the slope may have helped put out the flames. Then he had walked back up to the nest cliff and waited. His parents had delivered freshly killed cottontail rabbits and a rock squirrel to him on the ground. But I knew they would eventually lose interest in him when he failed to fly and he would slowly starve.
I made a gut-wrenching decision to leave him there that day while I sought a rehab facility that would take him and obtained permission from the US Fish & Wildlife Service to remove him from the mountain.
Finally on the 4th of July I returned to the cliff. The eaglet was in the same spot but he was not happy to see me again! He tried to grab me with his talons and bit my hands and arms as I carried him down the mountain.
I drove him to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in Ogden and into the waiting arms of DaLyn Erickson. She has dedicated her life to the care of injured and orphaned wildlife. She took one look at the burned eaglet and named him “Phoenix” after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes to be reborn.
Phoenix has come a long way since July. To say that he is spirited and a fighter would be a gross understatement. The hope is that he may be released to the wind one day. He remains an inspiration of the will to survive all odds. His courage and determination are spellbinding. But then I would expect nothing less from a golden eagle. They are nothing short of spectacular.