Aquila audax – eagle in flight. © Mike Gillam
By MIKE GILLAM
I sit back in my chair savouring a mid-morning coffee. The outside air is still fresh, my hands cradle the warm cup, its meagre heat finds me wishing the contents were less finite.
Eyes drift upwards, to unseen winds teasing and stretching at the white plumes of cirrus. Water vapour spun into extraordinary shapes, some abstract, some almost familiar; flying fish and levitating lakes recall an earlier epoch, no straight lines, agri grids or towns.
I watch for an hour or more as the scene stretches and changes. My eyes and imagination stretch also trying to find new meaning in the clouds; unfolding adventures of ancestral heroes perhaps, of mortal combat and mutually assured oblivion, courtesy of the wind.
Under Arrernte law only men could kill an eagle, taking its feathers for use as body decoration in ceremonies. Frequently circling above our heads and often unseen, Irretye is prominent in totemic stories and sacred sites to the north and east of Alice Springs.
Still a bit too early and not hot enough for the wedge-tailed eagles seen so frequently the previous summer. That last time, shielding my face with both hands and straining my eyes I was unable to resolve actual detail. Just a pair of circling dots. They had to be eagles surely, well over a thousand metres, maybe two thousand above ground – an altitude eagles shared with few other birds.
Back when I was sixty an optometrist checked my eyesight and was pleased to announce that my vision was 20/20, that is visual acuity measured at a distance of 20 feet! How rare is that? I asked, trying not to sound smug. Unusual in Europeans of advanced years, not so for Aboriginal people.
Struggling with the severe limitations of 20/20 vision, I dragged out the biggest lens I owned, a four kilogram monster, approximating the weight of an adult eagle and capable of resolving 560 mm with the diopter engaged.
The autofocus struggled but finally found the dots. These were instantly enlarged and changed shape to an ungratifying tilde symbol, that wavy key (~) situated on the far left of my keyboard. The dark smudges travelled in meandering circuits widening and then collapsing as the pair came together. How high? A colleague advises they’ve been recorded at altitudes up to six kilometres!
How would Aquila audax, that all seeing eye and defender of Centralia’s thermals, rate on the optometrists scale? I wondered. Google provided the answer. As a generalisation birds of prey can see four to five times farther than me and their vision is rated at 20/5 or 20/4.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the two dots above me could have seen a rabbit blink or at least the front lens element of the camera I was holding. The eagles vanished from view and I gave up squinting at poorly defined tildes.
Cloudscape © Mike Gillam
I muse over some of my contact highlights with wedge-tailed eagles in the past, of hiding in a hole in the ground for a week, a mere 13 metres from a carcass. At that distance the whoosh of landing eagles was reward enough and the photographs a bonus.
On another occasion I was forced to laugh at my own lack of awareness when an unseen eagle came so low to check my prone ‘corpse’ that I was forced to lie back and enjoy the moment. We made eye contact but the lens could not focus at such proximity and the alarmed eagle propelled itself to safety.
Eagle eyesight, apart from high sensitivity in the infrared and ultraviolet bands, has a feature succinctly described by the Alice Springs Desert Park: “The wedge-tailed eagle has sophisticated binocular vision which enables them to accurately assess distances and pinpoint their prey. Their eyes also are equipped with bony rings which can squeeze and elongate the eyeball. This has the same effect as a telephoto lens on a camera. It enlarges the image seen by the bird.”
Meandering thoughts are interrupted by a dull roar and I quickly stand for a better view. A shadow passes over the ridge-top, an involuntary frown crosses my face. So low, and a rare sight these days, a four-clawed eagle on its way to the airport south of Alice Springs. Charcoal in colour, the plane was not a US Airforce Star-lifter or Galaxy but a humble Hercules and I imagined rather than saw the eagle insignia. Eagle insignias are everywhere, so it seems possible and helpful for my story. Tens of thousands of them from football clubs to military units; if in doubt choose an eagle, the eye in the sky or the predator with talons outstretched ready to strike the enemy.
As a Conservation Commission ranger I used to wear the silhouette of a wedge-tailed eagle on each shoulder. Why not the charming Nyi Nyi or a trio of sacred caterpillars I hear you ask? Well, it’s obvious. We need that eagle power to conceal our weaknesses. It probably helps recruitment, surely fends off feelings of institutional insecurity, of compromised professional standards, of budget cuts and more cuts, of useless Ministers and plummeting staff morale. A logo featuring a spineless species would not do.
The Latin name Aquila audax translates as ‘bold eagle’ and heaven knows our institutions need all the vicarious boldness they can get. Certainly our satellites see more than any eagle and that poses a moral dilemma for our generation and our leaders in particular. Ignorance has lost much of its usefulness as an excuse for poor public policy and performance.