Dangling from a taut climbing rope with 30 feet of air between my feet and the sloping desert floor below, I watch through my camera’s viewfinder as Dustin Maloney awkwardly crawls through a tangled mass of sticks the size of a queen mattress.
We’ve both come to this place to find a special kind of quarry — a young golden eagle.
Maloney carefully places the 3- to 4-week-old bird, which looks like a fuzzy seagull armed with dagger-like talons, into a cloth bag and securely clips it to his climbing harness. I click away at the shutter, trying to hone my composition and account for the tricky lighting. Maloney ascended the cliff, having bagged his prey.
I lower myself onto a rocky ledge below, waiting for one of Maloney’s fellow biologists to descend to put the bird back in its nest. The ledge above me is strewn with loose rock, so I’ve opted to wait by the nest while the scientists draw blood samples and gather other data from the bird atop the cliff. Letting some slack out of my rope, I’m able to shuffle into the sun to stay warm on a strangely cool and windy May morning in the western desert, and there I wait for my next shot.
For Maloney, a research associate with Hawkwatch International, the goal is to gather data from this young eagle in the hopes of better understanding and protecting the species. For me, the goal is to document the great lengths these biologists go to for the sake of science.
Getting into position for this shot involved more hurdles than my typical assignments: There were hundreds of miles of driving on desolate dirt roads, far from the nearest town or cell signal; a sleepless night camping out in a windstorm; strenuous hikes up rocky hillsides, exposed to the heat of the western desert sun; and a rappel over loose rock and down a vertical cliff, to name a few. But the obstacle that posed the greatest threat to missing this shot threatened a lot more — the eagles were dying.
In a normal year I would have had ample opportunities to accompany the Hawkwatch team to various nests and have a reasonably good chance of finding young eagles in each. This year things were turned upside down. Perhaps due to a disease that has been decimating the rabbit population that the eagles feed on, plus some help from our historic drought, the scientists told me this has been an “unprecedented” bad year for nestling survival.
There’s an old quote from National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson:
“If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”
I think about this maxim a lot when I’m on assignment, and I usually take it to mean that the harder it is to get into position for a shot, the better your photo is going to be. Sometimes that means putting in the time to earn someone’s trust and gain access to intimate situations, and sometimes it means rappelling down a cliffside in the desert.
In May and June I visited six nests with the Hawkwatch team. We only found two that had live birds and were suitable for me to rappel into. On the first of those, the rock and anchors were so sketchy that I politely declined to get on rope. The fact that the light on the nest was bad only helped toward that decision — if I was going to risk life and limb for the shot, the light had better at least be good.
Thankfully, the next nest bore fruit and I found myself dangling from my rope alongside Maloney while he crawled toward the baby eagle.
On another trip to a nest site in Tooele County, we found two nestlings, but they had walked out onto a narrow ledge away from their nest. Maloney was afraid that an attempt to gather them could lead to them trying to jump to the ground below, or leave a member of his team at risk of swinging against the rock, so he decided the data wasn’t worth the risks to bird and human.
While the scientists left empty-handed, I was at least able to get a photo of the birds by having one of the biologists sit on my legs while I hung my torso over the cliff, extending my arms as far as they would reach to get the nestlings into view of my camera’s telephoto lens.
The next day I joined the team on its last nest visit of the season. Earlier in the season, two nestlings had been observed at this site.
Maloney lowered himself down the rope out of sight. A foul smell hung in the air. Was that the smell of the decaying animals the birds were feeding on? Or the birds themselves?
A few minutes later Maloney ascended to the top of the cliff.
“The birds are dead,” he said, matter-of-factly.