We’d been to the “eagle tree” earlier in the day, but it had been empty.
Now we’ve returned to the stately cottonwood, a white skeleton against a brilliantly blue January sky, and we’ve lucked out. It’s populated with seven — no, eight — roosting eagles, perched on the naked branches, scanning the fields below for their next meals.
Normally, we ground-bound creatures are lucky if we see one bald eagle soaring far overhead. But here in Carson Valley, Nevada, something special happens every January and February that, like a magnet, draws a few hundred eagles to a bounteous bird buffet.
It’s during these first weeks of the year that hundreds of cattle in the area give birth, leaving the afterbirth in the fields. It’s this rich source of protein in the valley that brings eagles from as far away as Alaska and predictably, hundreds of birders who want to see the majestic raptors.
About 18 years ago, Carson Valley decided to capitalize on this annual natural phenomenon and created Eagles & Agriculture.
Eagles & Ag is a four-day program that includes tours of area ranches and historic properties; exhibits featuring the works of local artists whose photos, paintings and drawings portray area wildlife and the spectacular Sierra Nevada mountains; up-close-and-personal encounters with working raptors and their owners; and photography tours.
On this frosty January morning, we are paired with award-winning wildlife photographer Dwayne Hicks, a longtime Carson Valley resident whose expertise lies not only with his 600-millimeter lens, but in raptor psychology and habitat. He knows all the fence posts, fields and favorite trees frequented by bald eagles and other raptors, and all the tricks for bringing home some amazing images.
Hicks takes us down muddy paths and across soggy fields, admonishing us to dodge puddles and cow pies.
“Walk closely in single file so that the eagles think we are only one person,” he instructs us.
Seeing many eagles in a defined area is unusual because “mated and especially nested eagles of all types can be very territorial,” Hicks explains. “A pair will cover a 25-mile radius. Luckily for the visiting eagles, the calving season is not during mating or nesting season, so the local eagles are more tolerant of the visitors.”
A resident of Mission Viejo until age 14, Hicks developed his love of the outdoors while “hiking the mountains and trails of Southern California and the Rockies of New Mexico. I spent summers in the June Lake area and came to Carson Valley and Tahoe for winter sports and getaways.”
His love affair with Carson Valley is strong.
“With the mountains all around us, everyone has a million-dollar view. We are a true four-season year, Lake Tahoe is just on the other side of the mountain, and Reno is only an hour away. We are still small enough that most people know most people, and our wildlife population is among the best in the United States.”
Hicks also spent 30 years working in and for the military, which sent him all over the globe. He’s photographed wildlife in most Western states, Alaska and the Yukon Territory.
“My favorite animal is the American bald eagle,” he says. “I would say it has to do with my service in the army and a love for this country, but I also have very vivid memories of seeing birds of prey here as a child and always wanted to see more of them.”
Three years ago, Hicks, 53, suffered a stroke that severely disabled him for months. He used this time to learn even more about raptors, and he shares this information throughout the tour.
“When a tour ends, I want my guests to experience something unlike anything they’ll find back home,” he says. “I want them to take a piece of this place with them so they’ll always want to come back.”
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