A convocation of eagles

Just the other morning, while working at the computer, my 10-year-old son and I stumbled upon a website listing collective names for animals. Anton's response was the same as mine had been when I first discovered this peculiarity of the language as a child: He was captivated.

A brace of ducks, a gaggle of geese, a kindle of kittens, and on and on. We immediately commenced a spontaneous census of the wildlife about our house here in central Maine, in terms of collective nouns.

Recalling the male and female mallards that wandered into our yard last year, we abandoned the pedestrian "pair" for the more novel "brace."

My son, moving down the list with the enthusiasm of a hungry diner perusing a Chinese menu, called out, "And we have a scurry of squirrels in the maple trees, charms of finches at the feeder, and a gaze of raccoons along the riverbank."

"Yes," I was quick to agree, "but don't forget the piteousness of doves that picks at the seed husks under the feeders and the murder of crows that flies over the house."

Anton picked up the beat again. "It's too bad we don't have a fesnying of ferrets."

"Or," I interjected, "an unkindness of ravens. But I did see a large black otter crawl out of the river once. If there had been a couple more it would have been a romp."

Great fun!

We then went outside to see what we could see. It was too cold to expect a knot of toads, and I had little hope of spotting a skulk of foxes, solitary as these animals are. The sidearm of the Penobscot River behind our house was still frozen tight, long deserted by its siege of herons. Despite these absences, we bundled up and set out across the ice to an off-lying island to continue our animal census there.

Halfway across, Anton called out and pointed skyward. I immediately saw it: a bald eagle in flight, its white head and tail clearly visible against the cold, stark blue.

"Let's follow it," I said. "It'll be a good workout."

Anton was game. We reached the ice-locked shore of the island, turned, and traced a path north, the same direction the eagle was flying. I had a sense of where the bird might be headed. Although the river was thoroughly frozen from bank to bank, there was an area of white water, the so-called "rips," at the head of the island that was forever boiling. It was a favorite haunt of ospreys, eagles, and various shorebirds.

The latest news about the bald eagle is that it is experiencing a striking comeback. It is estimated that during the Colonial period, there may have been more than 100,000 bald eagles. By the 1960s, there were fewer than 500 nesting pairs. Now there are a few thousand, a relative glut, although they're spread thinly over the breadth of the continent. I still gaze in awe whenever I see a bald eagle in flight, which I occasionally do, as my house is situated on one of their flyways.

Some years back I was entertaining a German couple who were great birders. I took them on a river walk near my house, during which the husband clicked, clicked, clicked away with his sophisticated camera. He marveled at the variety of species in the pine woods and scrub. Then he asked, "Do you think we'll see a bald eagle?"

As I raised my hand to explain that the species is relatively scarce, a large male flew out of the white pine that towered over our heads. It swooped down and then lifted upward before heading out over the river on those magnificent wings. I turned to my friend and said, "Will that do?"

Anton and I plodded through the snow for a good half hour before coming to the head of the island. As we passed through the woods, we did see a small host of sparrows and footprints where a leash of deer had been.

Then, like a curtain parting, the main body of the Penobscot River opened before us. It was frozen from shore to shore, except for the rips, which were wide open – the dark, almost black water nose diving under the ice. Then Anton cried out and pointed skyward.

They were unmistakable: Mostly males, but a couple of females, too. Bald eagles, gliding and diving about the water.

Anton began to count. "Seven, Dad!" he said.

I confirmed the number. It was a once-in-a-lifetime sight. So few of these great birds spread across the country, and we had theater seating to a cluster of seven.

"Have you ever seen such a large flock of bald eagles?" Anton asked.

"Flock?" I echoed. "I think the word is 'convocation.' A convocation of eagles."

The sighting of which had led to an elation of father and son.

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