Sunday, May 31, 2020

Meet the eagle-eyed birdwatchers at Shiloh battlefield

Shiloh National Military Park's resident bald eagles live in a nest in the pine in the far distance.
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They sit in their lawn chairs along Brown's Landing Road at Shiloh National Military Park, their eyes (and cameras) trained on the sky, searching, searching ... searching. Yards away, in Cloud Field, four cannon marking a Federal battery position loom ominously.

Will their quarry come from the east, from near the banks of the Tennessee River? Or will they come from the south, following the approximate course of the Hamburg-Savannah Road? Then something appears in the distance. Could it be?

"Look up there," says Faye Armour, pointing to the flapping figure in a baby-blue sky dotted with billowy clouds. "Oh, it's just a heron."

Shiloh eagle-watchers Faye and Ronald Armour.
Meet the six-person Shiloh bald eagle photographers/social club, a group of friends whose birdwatching adventures on hallowed ground sometimes last until dark. The object of their attention during their frequent Shiloh visits are the resident eagles that nest in a massive pine roughly 100 yards away. The two adults were named "Hiram" and "Julia" by the park staff. That's homage to General Ulysses Grant --- whose real name was Hiram, and his wife, whom some small part of me wishes was named Lady Bird. 

The eagles have made their home at Shiloh, where Grant whipped the Rebs in April 1862, since the fall of 2007, according to the National Park Service web site.

Faye, 69, is a retired floral designer; husband Ronald, also 69, is a retired electrician. The couple, married for 52 years, live in Selmer, Tennessee -- about 15 miles away as the eagle flies. The county is best known as home of the famous crime-fighting sheriff, Buford Puser. (Ronald even recalls seeing Puser -- whose story was told in the 1973 movie Walking Tall -- on the night he died in a car accident in 1974.)

Faye, whose ancestor George Washington Foster fought as a private for the 66th Illinois at Shiloh, and Ronald first came to the battlefield to see the eagles in 2012. "They flew over the trees," Ronald says, "and we just fell in love with it." The next year, the couple came armed with cameras for eagle photography.

As she awaits an eagle sighting, Faye cradles a $2,000 Canon 7D Mark 2 camera with a $1,500 lens. Some who come here for eagle shooting bring cameras that cost much more. Clearly, this can be serious business.

"I even gave up fishing to come here," Ronald says, half-kiddingly.

A bald eagle captured in flight Saturday.
On this gorgeous Saturday afternoon, the Armours are joined by four friends. When they aren't shooting picture of eagles, the group enjoys shooting the breeze at the battlefield. There's lots of laughter from this bunch, which has become so close that they even have vacationed together.

In pre-Covid 19 times, their spot at Shiloh might be occupied by dozens of eagle photographers. But the disease has thinned the flock, so to speak, and the Armours and their friends are the only shooters. In their years photographing eagles, the group has met battlefield visitors from Australia, Scotland, England, Germany, Israel and elsewhere around the globe.

As for the eagles, well, they can be a little flighty. By roughly 5 p.m., only two adults and an eaglet have been spotted by the group, which started gazing at the Shiloh sky about noon. "Eagles," one the Armours' friends chimes in with a chuckle, "have minds like Confederate generals -- minds of their own." When the eaglets are small, the adults tend to be more active, bringing in plenty of food to feed their young.

With my bird brain stuffed with knowledge, I slowly walk to my car for the trip back to Nashville. Before departing, I glance over my shoulder. Sure enough, the collective gaze of the eagle-eyed group is aimed skyward.

"When the eagle comes in," Faye assures me with a smile, "you will be totally ignored."

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