Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bald Eagle

Don’t try to sneak up on an eagle. 
It doesn’t work and it leaves you feeling frustrated and foolish.
I mention this, just in case you don’t already know it.   

I made trips to Menasha and Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin  
recently to look for Bald Eagles. My good friend, Fred Thorne, a fellow bird photographer joined me. These pictures are combined from those two trips. 

Bald Eagles congregate near open water to fish. That‘s often below a dam or at narrows in the river where the water moves too fast to freeze.  There could be a few eagles, a dozen eagles or a hundred eagles, depends on the fish…we wouldn’t know until we got there.

A hundred Bald Eagles in one place would be wonderful for photographers like Fred and me, but the eagles wouldn’t like that. 
Bald Eagles aren’t social birds. They don't like crowds. 
A cold spell forces them to congregate. They would prefer to have all the fish to themselves.

Squabbles break out in these confined areas and stealing a fish is a common occurrence.
Bald Eagles are not city-dwellers either.  They tolerate noise, traffic and people only because they have to.    

They allowed some encroachment of their space, but drew a line in the snow at photographers. Unfortunately, we never saw that line in the snow.  We must have crossed it because they flew away.  

Giving up, we packed up and drove up to Kaukauna. 

Kaukauna was better for us, but no quieter for the eagles.  Workmen were deconstructing a downtown warehouse and dropped concrete and steel out a second story opening onto the pavement below making an awful racket.  A Bald Eagle would have to be quite hungry to put up with that noise, but some did, 

Their hunger gave us hope.


Photo: Fred Thorne

Fred uses his camera hand-held and I use a tripod. Being more portable, Fred is better able to photograph flying eagles. He caught this young eagle landing on a snag.  

Bald Eagles spend a large portion of their day just sitting in trees, as they were this day, but around noon they all rose into the air and started to circle.

They weren’t fishing, they were playing.
The younger eagles seemed to be having the most fun…chasing others...

…diving at one another...

...mock attacks with closed talons. 

The adults joined in the circles, too, but they were more likely the ones to be attacked. I can’t say these eagles were related, but who other than a parent would put up with such bad behavior. 

The circling and soaring went on for forty-minutes, then stopped just as abruptly as it started.

In Prairie du Sac we looked to find Bald Eagles actually catching fish.

We found them fishing, poorly, I thought.

Coming up empty time after time, I thought these eagles were just bad at fishing, but later discovered they were actually catching fish…small fish…tiny fish…shad.  

Repeatedly dipping into the water to strike at something, most catches were so small as to be invisible at a distance.

So small they weren’t worth landing in a tree to eat, so the eagles ate them in the air…like popcorn.  Head down and feet forward, the talon-to-beak fish transfer was made and munched.

Choosing to eat your catch on the fly solves another eagle problem too…robbery!

Bald Eagles are not above stealing a fish, eating carrion or even garbage to survive.  

Early Americans knew that when they picked the Bald Eagle as our national emblem in the 1782, but they chose the Bald Eagle anyway.  Benjamin Franklin wrote the Wild Turkey was a more honorable and suitable symbol for the new United States of America, but he lost that argument.  

Your opportunity to see these beautiful birds in person is better now than it ever has been.  

With protection provided by the Endangered Species Act in 1978, a ban on the pesticide DDT and ultimately a human appreciation for what we were about to lose, the Bald Eagle has recovered to become a wintertime tourist attraction.  Many communities have eagle day events…cashing in on the Bald Eagle’s magnificence. It’s a success story that needs repeating.