Aquila chrysaetos

Golden eagle
Devon Fletcher



There is a sound. A crackling uneven whistling whine. Like the jets coming in and taking off from Holloman. Like the incoming missiles in an old war movie.


Out on the Mimbres River, I can hear it. Perhaps a fly-boy buzzing the ridge tops. Then more definitely, something on a trajectory to crash through the pines almost directly over our heads. I’m tensed up and ready to witness an impact of some kind. Looking up, not a plane and not Superman, it’s a bird. Hawk or falcon, it pulls up less than 30 feet above the ground.


I never would have thought that a bird in dive would or could make that sound and yet there it was and it immediately made sense.


There was no sound as I watched my first golden eagle soaring and making short stoops high above me against a deep blue February sky. I’m in the southern end of the Organ Mountains. The cliffs and towers of deep brown volcanic rock surround me. Its nest, seemingly made of real branches rather than twigs, clings to a wall 300 feet above the boulders on the floor of the canyon. My conscious mind has been informed that this is indeed a golden eagle, not a red tail or a vulture or a black hawk. I know, because that is what it is. I know even though I have seen a golden eagle only once before. Up close on a field trip at the Living Desert State Park in Carlsbad, it was on the concrete and behind some fencing but I was in stark awe at its size and beauty while the students (ages 5, 6 and 7) with me seemed unimpressed.


Again in the Organ Mountains, perhaps as much as ten years later, I am hiking alone. I hike alone much of time, it seems to suit me best. I picture how small I must appear from high above, but I feel large in my skin as I fill my lungs over and over and step up and up. My brain is filled with words that I hope to write when my day in the wilderness is finished, that I hope will convey my joy and inspiration. But I must take pictures too. Of the trickle of water that runs down the yellow bedrock of the canyon. Of the lone juniper ahead that soon will provide me some shade as I climb on a September afternoon that has changed from cloudy and unseasonably cool to clear and seasonably warm.


I have just returned the phone to my pocket, when out of the juniper emerges a dark shape. Hawk? Owl? No. It might as well be a Pteranodon for the excitement I feel. I half expect it, or perhaps I want it to pluck me off the mountainside as it comes closer. Can I see its eyes, beak? The brown feathers are flecked with yellow (yes, gold). It is less that 10 feet above me when it passes directly over my head. Wings fully open, the span easily greater than I am tall, it can only be what it is, again, a golden eagle.


Like a small plane, it banks to the east and flies from me. As the trip continues I see many wonderful things. I know that people will doubt my eagle story, but I could and would never omit it when I tell and re-tell my memories of this day.


Alone again, west of Las Cruces. No need for companions or to tack post-its of conversation on desert grasses. When I am just one, I have the quiet on my side. Things appear. Happenings occur. Vulnerable. I have fallen hard on the rock. Not up on the treacherous hillside I have just come down. Not up in the narrowest reaches of the canyon on the water-worn smooth bedrock, but out in the flats where wide washes converge, a toe catches a root and down I go. I am looking for what I find. The rugged cliffs are of a size unexpected. The extremely narrow box sections of the canyons with pools of black water are impressive as well. I am the silly two-legged creature that stumbles across the desert, but I feel its immensity seep into me and I am happy.


Struggling through boulders and brush I come to the second of two wonderfully constructed large dams I’ve encountered that day. This one has two tiers fitted tightly into the rough cliffs. On the platform in between, I see it only twenty feet away. The eagle seems indifferent initially and I am able to move closer still. Senses are immersed to the hilt. I can see the golden eagle completely as if with its own acute vision, but when I raise my camera to my eye it shows scrub oak and juniper branches nearly obscuring it altogether. I inch closer to somehow get a clear line of sight when it takes to air above the trees, above my head, flying down canyon off to the north. All I manage is a photo of a small silhouette in distant flight. Phone back in pocket, I proceed toward the dam when a second eagle materializes from cliffs, lands on the platform almost directly in front of me quite briefly and then takes flight towards wherever its companion has gotten to. A pair. There to take a drink where water stays, and even freezes, in the cool shadows. Wild seconds again with a breathless exhilaration unmanufactured, unpursued and all the more for it.


Like holding hands with giants, if you do believe my stories. Unfocus your desires. Let the desert, golden eagles be and happen.




Devon Fletcher has been wandering around the desert canyons and mountains near his home in Las Cruces for over 20 years. He is co-author of Exploring Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument and has maintained the blog "Southern New Mexico Explorer" since 2007.