For the longest time we just sat there staring at each other. She gazed fiercely in all her majestic glory, jaundiced eye piercing my lens. Having survived the near-extinction of her entire species, this bald eagle on Nanjemoy Creek was not about to allow a mere mortal paddling a small boat ruin her day. She teased me, fluttering to higher branches, winging to another tree farther along in the marsh, turning to see if I followed. A heron squawked up from the reeds, disturbing the silence of our little game, and the eagle took flight with the big blue bird trailing behind, disappearing in muddy flats well beyond what even a kayak could reach.
The restoration of bald eagles after nearly four decades on the Endangered Species List is one of the great triumphs of conservation. These great birds have come to symbolize both the fragility of the wild environment and the success that can occur when humans undertake a concerted effort to protect the environment and its inhabitants.
One of the remarkable features of the Washington region is its proximity to breathtakingly beautiful natural habitats for wildlife, particularly along the tributaries of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. In the summer I sometimes spend a Saturday afternoon paddling along Nanjemoy Creek and the Port Tobacco River in Charles County, home to increasingly strong populations of bald eagles, osprey, blue herons and many other species. But even as I enjoy the wildlife and more leisurely pace of life along these Potomac waterways, threats to the environment are clear everywhere, from the oil and refuse that powerboats spew into these fragile waters, to the trash along riverbanks and increasingly dense developments that denude forests all the way to the water’s edge, removing naturally protective barriers and increasing polluted runoff. This summer’s drought is also clearly visible in the acres of dried corn crops along the roads and brown grass everywhere.
Paddling back to the launch site, the osprey in tall nests and tree branches raised a ruckus whenever they could see me, and the heron and cormorants took flight quickly when I turned corners along the marsh banks. The birds know their place, and they send clear signals that those of us who can’t fly should leave them alone. They’re probably right, though I love to sneak a peek every so often. They remind me of the context of human life, part of the great ecosystem, not supposed to dominate or destroy other species, but bearing a greater responsibility for the protection of all because we are the species with the brains that make it possible for us to choose destruction or conservation. We also are the species with the conscience that should lead us to do the right thing.