Welcome to May everybody! I mentioned this in my last post, but this year is sailing by. Good news, Brad has successfully returned home from his field assignment. Sounds like our quest for the incredibly elusive Ptarmigan will continue on. I wanted to start getting a few of the pending posts popped off his growing queue – word is there might be another batch coming soon. The weather took a turn for the cold this weekend and decided to go with one that fit the chilly temps. Put your mittens and hats on folks and brace yourselves for the cold Mighty Mississippi winds.
…take it away Brad…
I think most people remember the first time they saw a bald eagle in the wild. I know I certainly do. The story was featured right here on Wildlife Intrigued in an article called Yellowstone Feathers and Fur. At the time I thought I would probably never see another bald eagle in the wild so I absorbed as much of that opportunity as I could. Little did I know I’d be able to fill a couple of memory cards the next time I saw a bald eagle. Or see dozens of them in the same place. There have been a few stories about bald eagles on Wildlife Intrigued over the years. I suppose this one was also influenced by Brian in a way. He tells me that the photos are important, but the story about them is often more important. Even if a photo is worth a thousand words, it’s still nice to read the words. That’s why I thought I’d try this one on for size. By the way, I like to have music playing in the background when I write stories. Guess which song was shuffled while I was writing? The answer is at the end. (No peeking ahead of time)
Hit the jump to read more about Brad and Terry’s fishin’ adventure!
Many years ago, a mutual friend and co-worker of Brian and I, named Terry, asked if I wanted to go “shoot” eagles. With a raised eyebrow, I asked if that was legal. He laughed and said “shoot” them with a camera. I said YES! When can we leave? At the time Terry and Brian and I worked together. Being fellow photographers outside of work, sometimes “work” conversations slipped towards photography, gear, tools and locations. When we told Brian we were going to “shoot” bald eagles he suggested a great location and explained how to get there. There’s a road along the river under the I-280 bridge over the Mississippi we must try. Oh, and if there aren’t any bald eagles there, try the lock and dam just up the road a bit.
Terry and I hopped in his car and headed toward the Mississippi river to see if we could spot any eagles. Roughly two hours later, we found the exit off the interstate and followed Brian’s directions. But after a few minutes we thought we must be lost, because the area didn’t look like anything Brian had described. After wandering for a few minutes, we did find the river road under the interstate bridge. Keep in mind this was the third week in February and I think the high temp for the day, with the wind chill, was only 5F. We were shielded from much of the wind and luckily the area was fairly well lit. We spotted a few eagles in the trees, but they were all about 100 yards away or more. The water near the bank of the river was filled with mallards, white pelicans, and a few chunks of ice.
At this point we were sure we were in the wrong place because there weren’t many eagles within 100 yards of us. Eventually, one eagle decided to take pity on us and landed in a tree nearly directly overhead.
Thankfully, it seemed to be staring at Terry and not me. After about 30 minutes of freezing, and no additional eagles nearby, we decided to go to location #2 near the lock and dam on the Mississippi near LeClaire, Iowa. As we pulled into the parking lot by the dam, the wind picked up a bit as the sun rapidly dropped in the sky. We made sure we layered up. I put a spare camera battery in my inside coat pocket to try to keep it warm.
As we stepped out of the car, I was completely unprepared for the sheer volume of bald eagles in the trees and flying overhead. I conservatively counted two dozen bald eagles perched in the trees near the parking area alone. I’ve seen fewer mosquitoes in Minnesota during the summer.
A dozen or more were in the trees near the lock and another half dozen were playing in the fading sunlight over the river. It was all a bit overwhelming for someone who had been excited to see a solitary eagle a few years before. Naturally, I began filling up a 16Gb compact flash card and draining my camera battery as quickly as I could.
At this point I’m going to fudge just a little bit. By the time we arrived at the lock and dam, the sun had lowered enough in the clear blue sky to put the entire viewing area into heavy shadow while the far river bank was overly bright. I’m going to substitute photos from another trip Terry and I took. But instead of late February, it was now early January the next year, and 5 degrees colder than the first visit (near 0 degrees Fahrenheit this time). We were there a couple of hours earlier on the second trip. The entire area was bathed in sunlight, as much as can be expected in the Midwest in deep winter.
Most photographers there had cameras with glass the size of dinner plates, securely mounted on tripods. They seemed to all be dressed for an Arctic expedition. We were mostly dressed for the cold, but my fingers and toes were cold in only a few minutes. I was using my 70-200mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter. The river channel was not frozen, yet, so many of the eagles were fishing away from the riverbank. It was all my camera could do to catch photos of eagles that were more than a handful of pixels from so far away. Every now and then an eagle would try fishing right next to the bank of the river. This is where Terry and I had the advantage. Our medium-range lenses were well suited for the “less than 50-foot” fly-bys. The 600mm lenses could only watch as they had too much reach for the close-up fishing attempts. And yet, not quite enough reach to get to the center of the channel where the main fishing action was going on.
This eagle was trying its best at fishing. The talons were down and ready but the approach was all wrong. The attempt was soon aborted to try again. The small feathered dots floating on the water are “ducks.” The ducks turned out to be pairs of common mergansers (a +1 for me). They were fun to watch because every time one of them would fart (purely speculation on my part), they would all take off toward the main channel. After a minute they would circle back and settle on the water again, only to repeat the process at the next expulsion.
All the while, I’m clicking the shutter so quickly it sounds like I have a movie camera. Terry calmly pointed out an eagle that was 20-30 feet above the water. The eagle, simply floating in the air, seemed to be looking for something. It was turning its head left and right.
All of the sudden the eagle dove towards the water, talons extended. Splash! No fish. Bad for it; good for me. Now I had the behavior I was looking for. I started watching for eagles that were “fluttering” along and looking around (“nuthin’ to see here”). Then Terry spotted this one just starting its final approach only a few feet above the water.
Fishing gear is hanging down, relaxed, and at the ready. The fin on its upcoming, nearly frozen dinner, is visible in the right-hand side of the photo and just below the middle.
Now its talons are extended, looking almost relaxed. Wingtip feathers are providing fine flight controls. Eagle eyes locked onto the prize; it follows dinner all the way to its talons. The trick is for the eagle to maintain the right amount of speed to grab a tasty meal out of the water and still be able to maintain flight afterwards. Various web sites think that cruising speed, 20-30MPH, is the “right” speed for fishing. This eagle had just made a short dive (25-30 feet), to quickly pick up speed, and leverage the “ground effect” close to the water’s surface (see notes).
Got it! (Is that a herring?) You can see how harsh the sunlight was by the shadow on its neck. And I’ve even lightened up the shadow quite a bit, but any further editing looked fake so I moved the slider back to the left a little bit.
Fish secured, the eagle’s wings swoop forward for the first full flap after grabbing a meal. Its tip feathers are splayed to get as much air as possible. The water rushing into the hole where the fish used to be has splashed up behind the bird.
This is the top of the first full wing stroke after catching the fish. Dinner (or a late afternoon snack in this case) is trailing behind clutched securely in its talons. Some of the water is still airborne from the grab only a 1/4 second before.
The reddish/pink-ish fuzzy stuff in the corner of the images is a pompon on someone’s stocking cap. I have horrible luck with people jumping in front of me seeing how much of my view they can block while missing the photo themselves.
The whole sequence of photos from final approach to escape takes less than 1.5 seconds according to the timestamp on the photos. Now I understand why I had to learn to look for the leading signs. The whole thing happens almost as fast as the brain can register it’s happening. Then I still had to get the camera in position to take the photos.
I’m told that catching fish out of cold water is somewhat hazardous for bald eagles. While they can swim for a little while, it is impossible for them to get out of the water to fly again once their wings are wet. If an eagle has to ditch, it has to be able to swim (using its wings to paddle) to shore with or without its catch. The extreme cold makes it even less likely they will survive a water landing. Thankfully, we did not see any water landings from these eagles.
The eagle that just snagged dinner flew over our heads to land in a tree at the edge of the parking lot. It landed on a large branch right above the port-a-potty. Normally this wouldn’t be important, but did I mention how cold it was outside? We had been hydrating appropriately, even in the very cold weather. Eventually you have to . . . well . . . you know. I didn’t want to disturb the eagle’s dinner, so I waited. Though not to worry, a few photographers used the facilities and the eagle didn’t seem to mind at all.
I also learned that this may have been a younger eagle and wary of his snack being snatched away by a larger eagle. (Yes, there were several around that were MUCH larger than this one.) It would have a few bites then take a good look around to see who was watching besides us photographers. The birds were so accustomed to people that we didn’t seem to influence their behavior at all.
We decided to head home a little after 5:30pm. The sun was nearly gone anyway and the eagles wouldn’t be doing much fishing after dark. At that point they just look for stray tourists. On the way home, Terry smiled and asked if I wanted any tea. I looked over with what I’m sure was a quizzical look on my face. He said he had made a Thermos of cinnamon orange tea and thought it might help shake off the chill. Yes please!
Part of the process of photographing wildlife is the utter surprise of finding a really cool photo I didn’t know that I had captured. One of my favorite “wow!” photos from the original eagle “shoot” was this one.
It truly shows just how close the eagles come to being IN the water while they are grabbing a fish OUT of the water. I didn’t fully appreciate the detail in the photo, until I saw it on my large monitor at home. I had to lighten this one up a bit past my comfort level to make it viewable; it was originally a bit dark from being late in the day. I suppose the tail feathers leaving streaks through the water help the eagle gauge just how close it is. They may even provide a bit of tail support. I don’t know for sure; it’s just a cool photo, IMHO. BTW, this eagle did score a fish for all of its efforts.
Thank you for reading.
If you want to see more photos of eagles from this story, please visit here.
Oh, I forgot to mention, the song I was listening to while I was writing (I am NOT making this up) was “Fly Like an Eagle” by the Steve Miller Band.
Thanks again to Jan and Allyson for proofreading and editing.
Ground effect is a quirk of aerodynamics caused when birds (or planes) “fly” close to a surface. The downwash from the underside of the wings creates a cushion of air beneath the wings, increasing lift and reducing drag. The effect is strongest when birds are within a wing length of the water/ground. Ground effect quickly dissipates as the birds rise into the air.