In the summer of 1947, 16-year-old John Taylor landed a job as a seasonal worker at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington. The work was mundane, but it placed him in the middle of a bird paradise.
Close to the Anacostia River, filled with a variety of avian habitats and food sources, the arboretum was teeming with Taylor’s feathered brethren.
Already a birder and a bird illustrator, he began to log his sightings. The quail were a “common permanent resident.” A marsh hawk could be seen in the mudflats by the river. A coot was “a rather rare migrant on the nearby water-ways.”
One bird stood above all the others. “The bald eagle is the arboretum’s main ornithological attraction,” he wrote. He observed a whole family of them, including a fledgling perched near the nest. “It could fly fairly well and took off through the woods,” he wrote to a fellow birder.
Taylor didn’t know it at the time, but America’s national bird was about to fall into the abyss. Fouled rivers poisoned the bird’s diet of fish, and the widespread use of the insecticide DDT had the unintended consequence of making the shells of eagle eggs disastrously fragile when the 13-pound mother birds sat on them.
Bald eagle populations crashed, and these most magnificent of raptors – second only to California condors in wingspan and unequaled in their raging beauty – became perilously rare.
Last week saw a spellbinding reunion at the arboretum. Taylor, now 83, could be seen standing near the summit of the high point of the 446-acre federal reservation, a hilly woodland named Mount Hamilton. He had a pair of birders’ binoculars around his neck, and he was looking north through a clearing, to a fork high in a spindly tulip poplar. He could see the white head of an eagle looking out over the parapet of its vast stick nest. At one point, she stood up and readjusted herself over the unseen hatchlings. The eagles, like John Taylor, were back after 68 years.
Taylor was in an area most arboretum visitors won’t see this spring – the arboretum has created a 660-foot buffer zone around the nest to meet federal law – and he was in the company of arboretum staff and Dan Rauch, who is the of Columbia’s ornithologist.
As we watched, one of the parent eagles flew to a tree near us, and the other sat on the nest, incubating the eaglets.
Today, it is not uncommon to see an eagle wheeling over the skies above Washington’s Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Rauch recalls sitting at a Washington Nationals’ game and being perhaps the only person among thousands to notice an eagle soaring high above the action.
But to see them up close, as dutiful parents, is something else. The female does most of the early incubating. Later, as the chicks need more food, the parents switch off the nest-minding as they take turns fetching food, mostly catfish from the upper tidal reaches of the Anacostia below.
The eagle in the tree turned its back to us and then started preening. This was a good sign, said Rauch. The bird was undoubtedly aware of us – the eyes are yellow and piercing – but unfazed.
Taylor has been around long enough to see the eagle return; it was taken off the endangered and threatened species list in 2007. He lives in Edgewater, Md., an area rich with waterfowl, ospreys and the odd eagle. Like the blase bird above us, Taylor seemed tranquil about his return to the arboretum. But the experience prodded memories. I asked him where the nest was in 1947, and he turned to his left and pointed to a thicket of hardwoods to the west. “I think it was in one of those trees there,” he said. “A maple.”
This place, this little mountain of hardwoods, hasn’t changed much in appearance in decades, and for Taylor it is an oasis in a city that has developed almost beyond recognition.
As a boy, he lived in the Brookland neighborhood and walked south to the arboretum. It took an hour. “This was the edge of the city right here,” he said. “I walked through farmland and woods. It’s now solid development.”
If he had time, he would head from the arboretum to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, using a freight train bridge to cross the river. Amid the lily ponds, he would record and draw bird species, including rails and moorhens. Then he would take the streetcar back to Brookland.
Taylor, who made a career as an artist and a bird illustrator, is still incredulous that his teachers recognized and nurtured this talent when he was in the fourth grade. He is happy the eagle has rebounded and believes the bird has adapted to living closer to humans than when he was a boy. But “a lot of birds are declining badly, particularly waterfowl.”
Bald eagles mate for life, and if they like this spot on Mount Hamilton, they will be back, Rauch predicted, and for years to come. “Hopefully this is just the beginning of a 20-year story,” he said.
Taylor still paints for a couple of hours a day, before he runs out of energy. “I'll be 84 in three weeks,” he said. He still likes to go birding “when it’s warm enough. I haven’t been out much this winter.”
He put on a sage green cap with a roadrunner embroidered above the peak and walked back to Rauch’s car, which was ready to take him back down the mountain. The appearance of John Taylor and the eagles seemed to conjure a memory of a time that we did not know but could feel nevertheless.