Snow Geese

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Although Bald Eagles were the principal focus of our trip with Aaron’s Phototours they were not the only species that we observed and photographed.  In driving around northwestern Washington State we came across flocks of wintering Snow Geese.

Snow Geese are attractive, substantial birds.  An adult Snow Goose weighs a bit over five pounds and has a four-foot wingspan.  These geese are smaller in size than Canada Geese but have a striking appearance, having virtually pure white plumage with the exception of dark under wingtips.  There is a dark color variant of this species, the so-called “Blue Goose,” but I didn’t see any of these birds.

Snow Geese spend their summers in the Arctic, where they breed.  In winter they migrate south and Washington State is one of these birds’ winter residences (a relatively small number of these birds also winter in southeastern Arizona).  They like to be relatively close to water but they forage on land, grazing on grass.

Most remarkably, these birds congregate in enormous flocks, flocks that may contain thousands of individuals.  We saw fields that were literally carpeted with flocks of Snow Geese that occupied acres.

When one of these flocks flies, the sight is spectacular, with hundreds or thousands of birds taking to the air simultaneously.

An airborne flock of Snow Geese literally darkens the sky.  This next image shows hundreds of birds and yet, the image incorporates only a small fraction of the entire flock that I observed.

Airborne, these geese are a magnificent sight.  On more than one occasion we observed a flock of foraging geese take wing in concert.  Snow Geese are preyed on by Bald Eagles and the sight of one flying overhead usually is enough to spook an entire flock.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, M setting.  First image shot at ISO 1600, f5.6 @ 1/400. Second image shot at ISO 1250, f8 @ 1/500.  Third image shot at ISO 1250, f8 @ 1/640.

Bald Eagles — Food Fight!

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I’m posting a lot of images in today’s blog — my eagle grand finale.  They all relate to a single aspect of Bald Eagle behavior.

Yesterday, I wrote about eagles’ feeding behavior, discussing the fact that they’re not always the magnificent predators that they appear to be.  Today, I’m writing about their social behavior.  In summer, eagles pair off and raise their young.  In winter, they tend to congregate in areas where food is available.  Life can be tough for these birds.  Food gets scarce during the cold months and it becomes a matter of every eagle for himself or herself and intense competition for available food.

It’s not unusual to spot a group of Bald Eagles perching near each other during the winter.  We saw as many as a dozen birds perching just a few feet apart, each on the lookout for something to eat.  When food does appear it produces a frenzy of activity as the eagles flock to it.  A dead salmon lying on a stream bank is an eagle magnet.

The presence of food causes at times violent-appearing competition among the eagles.  These big birds will fight furiously with each other for the opportunity to dine.

Much of the combat appears to be ritualistic, involving screaming, wing-flapping, and posturing.  The objective for an eagle competing for food appears to be to appear as menacing as possible to other birds, scaring them away from the food item.

But, not always.  Sometimes, these battles become real, if only briefly, with birds striking at each other or nipping each other with their beaks.

There is no respect for seniority in these food fights.  Younger birds compete with their elders and seem to win out as often as not. In the image below, an adult bird, a four-year old, and a two-year old bird are competing for the carcass of a fish.

On the other hand, size definitely seems to matter.  Smaller birds appear to get less respect than do their larger compatriots.  In this next image, the young eagle on the left is diminutive compared to the trio of older birds.  And, he certainly isn’t intimidating any of those much bigger birds.

At times, these battles degenerate into wild melees, with multiple birds jockeying for the prize.  On those occasions the action may become explosive.

So, the eagle’s realm is no peaceable kingdom.  Perhaps this truth is another blow to the stereotype of the majestic national symbol.  Think about it the next time you see an image of a Bald Eagle soaring serenely above the landscape.  Looks can be deceiving.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, M setting.  First image, ISO 4000, f5.6 @ 1/1600.  All other images shot at ISO 5000, f5.6 @ 1/640.


Bald Eagles — What’s For Dinner?

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The image of a Bald Eagle favored by patriots everywhere, and beer manufacturers as well, is of a magnificent predator, diving on its prey.

There’s considerable truth to the stereotype.  Bald Eagles — whose primary food consists of fish — are skilled aerialists, capable of picking off an unwary victim if it swims too closely to the surface.  Watching these big birds dive for prey can be pretty breath-taking at times.

The classic “eagle hunting shot” is the image of the bird as it is just about to strike, its talons extended in front of its head, intensely concentrating on its target.

But, there’s more to this bird than meets the eye.  Bald Eagles are opportunistic feeders that will as cheerfully gobble down carrion as they will fresh-caught fish.  A Bald Eagle will never pass up a sure thing.  And so, these birds often flock to dead creatures, even as vultures do.  A rotting salmon carcass by the side of a stream is likely to attract a crowd of eagles.

Bald Eagles are also adept at stealing food from other birds, a tactic known as “klepto-parisitism.”  In environments where eagles and Ospreys coexist, the eagles quite often harass the Ospreys into giving up their catches.  We watched eagles pursuing gulls in order to force them to surrender food items.

So, these birds are, in fact, quite a bit less majestic in real life than they are depicted in popular culture.  Benjamin Franklin, commenting on the choice of the Bald Eagle as our national symbol, said this:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…”

As for me, I don’t begrudge Bald Eagles for their lifestyle, it’s a tough world out there.  And, as for choosing the bird as our national symbol, well, I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s an appropriate choice.  Some might say it’s perfect, given its range of behaviors.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, M setting.  First image, ISO 4000, f6.3 @ 1/1250.  Second and third images, ISO 3200, f5.6 @ 1/1250.  Fourth image, ISO 4000, f5.6 @ 1/1250.  Final image, ISO 5000, f5.6 @ 1/640.



Bald Eagles — Kids And Grownups

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Just about everyone is familiar with the appearance of an adult Bald Eagle.  The bird is our country’s national symbol and its image is distributed world-wide.  The eagle’s solidly dark brown body, its brilliant white head, neck, and tail, its pale eyes, and its huge yellow beak make it instantly identifiable.  I doubt if anyone, viewing an adult Bald Eagle for the first time, would ask him- or herself: “What species of bird is that?”

However, young Bald Eagles — those that are less than five years old — display plumage that varies from the adult model.  For those who are unfamiliar with the species, a young eagle may look like something entirely different from what they’ve come to expect.

One cannot differentiate young eagles from adults by their size.  Fledgling eagles, only a few months old, are as big or very nearly as big as the adult birds.  There are considerable size differences among eagles, but those differences are unrelated to age.  As with other raptors, female eagles are bigger, sometimes much bigger, than are the males.

Eagles leave the nest cloaked in dark brown plumage and with dark beaks and eyes.  They are so different in appearance from adult birds that many assume that the youngsters aren’t Bald Eagles.  Moreover, first-year Bald Eagles bear a slight resemblance to adults of another eagle species, the Golden Eagle, and the two are often confused.

As the youngsters age, they add patches of white plumage.  A second-year bird appears as mottled brown and white.

Sitting side by side, a first-year and a second-year Bald Eagle show a lot of differences.

As the eagles age, they add more white feathers to their heads and tails and the white plumage on their bodies gradually disappears.  Their eyes become pale and their beaks turn yellow.  By the latter part of their fourth year, Bald Eagles begin to resemble adult birds quite closely.  The eagle shown below has nearly attained adulthood.  But, notice that there remain streaks of dark plumage on the bird’s face and that the tips of its tail feathers are dark.

Finally, at about age five, the eagle attains full adulthood.

One of the really wonderful aspects of our eagle trip was that we were able to view Bald Eagles in nearly every stage of development, from first-year birds to adults.  We were able to observe not only these birds’ appearance, but their behavior, as well.  I’ll discuss their behavior in my next post.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, M setting.  The first image shot at ISO 3200, f5.6 @ 1/800.  Images two, three and four shot at ISO 2500, f5.6 @ 1/400.  The fifth image shot at ISO 3200, f5.6 @ 1/1600.  The final image shot at ISO 3200, f5.6 @ 1/1250.

Bald Eagles In The Skagit Valley

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I spent most of the past week in the Skagit Valley of Northwestern Washington State, photographing Bald Eagles along with some other species.  I was part of a group led by Aaron Baggenstos (Aaron’s Phototours).  Aaron runs tours all over the world (I was on his Alaskan Brown Bear Tour last July) and they are phenomenal.  Aaron is a superb photographer and does everything in his power to help his clients get good photographs.

The area that we visited is a winter home to numerous Bald Eagles and we saw dozens of them while we were there, birds of every age from first-year individuals to full adults.  We watched them as they perched, as they hunted, as they fed, and as they fought with each other for dominance and access to food.  It was an extraordinary experience, made even more memorable by atrocious weather.  In days to come I’ll feature images from this trip plus a narrative or two about what it was like to take pictures in conditions that ranged from merely bad to terrible.

Bald Eagles are among the largest birds of prey in North America, being roughly equaled in size only by Golden Eagles (California Condors are larger, but it is debatable in my opinion to categorize them as “birds of prey” with eagles, hawks and falcons).  They appear much larger in real life than in images.  A Bald Eagle, weighing from 10 to 13 pounds, has a seven-foot wingspan.

They are magnificent birds.  Paradoxically, they have a lifestyle that falls a bit short of regal.  Eagles hunt prey but they are also scavengers, feeding on road kill and dead fish as eagerly as they do on the birds and animals that they succeed in capturing.

Although these huge birds may roost near each other, they are anything but social, squabbling constantly and occasionally fighting for dominance and control of food.  Over the next couple of weeks or so I will intersperse my posts about desert wildlife with images of eagles and descriptions of what we witnessed.  It was truly an amazing experience.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens.  All images made at “M” setting.  First and third images, ISO 6400, f5.6 @ 1/1250.  Second image, ISO 4000, f5.6 @ 1/1250.  Fourth image, ISO 4000, f5.6 @ 1/800.


Year End Countdown # 1 — Coastal Brown Bear With Salmon


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Today I’m posting my final image of my year end countdown.    I’m going to be off for a few days after today and I will resume posting on New Year’s eve.

The image is an iconic shot, a young Coastal Brown Bear with a just-caught salmon.  I took this picture in September near Sitka, Alaska at a site known as Pavlov Harbor.  There’s a fast-flowing stream at that location and in the fall, salmon swim upstream in order to spawn.  Bears congregate near the base of a waterfall and capture salmon as they struggle against the current.  On that day there were at least a half-dozen bears fishing there.

The subject of this image is one of a pair of young Coastal Brown Bears.  Bears are normally solitary but this pair was as thick as thieves.  It’s likely that they were third- or fourth-year cubs that had recently left their mother.  One of the two was somewhat larger than the other and was clearly the dominant bear.  As we watched, the smaller bear caught several salmon only to be confronted by its larger companion and made to surrender them.  However, the stream was so packed with fish that there was plenty to go around even under those circumstances and I’m sure that both bears eventually ate their fill.

I like this photo for a lot of reasons.  It does a good job portraying the action: the stream has a very strong current, one that almost certainly would knock down a human attempting to stand in that water.  But, the bears, with their considerable mass and four sturdy legs, were able to wander around with aplomb in the rushing water.  In this image you can plainly see the current’s force.  I like this picture also because it shows the young bear’s state of mind.  Its eyes are focused on its sibling, just out of the frame, and when I look at the image I can easily imagine the bear wondering to itself whether it would be forced to give up yet another fish.

I also like the photo because it is a reminder to never give  up on taking pictures, even under difficult conditions.  When I made this image the conditions were at least as difficult as they were for that eagle photograph that I posted yesterday.  There was intermittent light rain and very dim lighting.  More than that, however, there was a dense fog that covered the scene.  At any given moment the fog was nearly impenetrable.  It would lift briefly and then, settle in once more.  The fog parted just long enough for me to take this, and other pictures, that day.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 2500, f8 @ 1/500.

Year End Countdown # 2 — Bald Eagle In A Downpour

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Today’s image is among my favorites for a lot of reasons, not the least because for me, it is the most memorable of all of the photographs that I made in 2017.  I took this photo in September while cruising down Alaska’s southern coast.  The ship anchored in a small and sheltered bay, just a few miles in diameter.  The water in the bay was calm and the bay was fed by a large and equally calm stream.  Shortly after lunch the passengers divided into groups of about 8 and we embarked in Zodiacs to explore the bay and stream.

The weather was atrocious.  It was pouring rain and the rain plus a heavy overcast greatly diminished visibility.  I remember thinking as we embarked that conditions were too poor to take any pictures.

Our guide took us to the mouth of the stream.  The tide was rising and the current was sufficient to push the Zodiac upstream without any assist from the craft’s engine.  So, we drifted slowly upstream with the boat’s motor off.  After a few minutes of drifting we spotted a young bald eagle perching on a dead tree that was adjacent to the stream.  The eagle perched only about 15 feet above the water and was completely exposed.

We had seen numerous eagles on this trip but none of them were so photographable.  I remember thinking to myself that this opportunity was almost too good to be true.  Our guide allowed the Zodiac to drift towards the eagle which, surprisingly, stayed on its perch without flying immediately as we floated close to it.   I lay down in the front of the Zodiac, rested my camera on the bow of the boat, aimed at the eagle and hoped for the best, given the bad light and the pouring rain.  The conditions forced me to shoot at a very slow shutter speed even though I had increased the light sensitivity of my camera’s sensor to ISO 2500 and had opened my lens to its widest aperture.   I took image after image of the bird without any real hope that I’d get anything decent in those conditions.

But, to my delight, everything worked.  The calm conditions meant that I had no wave movement to contend with.  The Zodiac’s bow stabilized my camera to the extent that it was if I was photographing from a tripod.  Among the images that I made was this:

I love everything about this photograph.  The eagle is an immature bird, probably in its fourth year.  Bald eagles don’t display pure white heads and tails until they are fully mature.  This bird retains some mottling on its head and numerous white feathers on its breast, also a sign of immaturity.  All of this color makes the bird more interesting, in my opinion.  The eagle is razor sharp as is the dead tree on which it perches.  I really like the tree.  The moss on the tree’s trunk adds a great deal of character, in my opinion.  I also like the background.  Had the bird perched at a higher elevation, the background would have been a leaden gray sky.  Here, the trees and shoreline add a nice accent.  And, finally, I very much like the rain that is streaking across the image.

So, I got my “perfect” eagle portrait under terrible conditions.  That taught me an important lesson.  With nature photography one should never give up, no matter what the conditions may be.  Opportunities exist in every situation:  one must work to find and exploit them.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 2500, f5.6 @ 1/250.

Year End Countdown # 3 — Coastal Brown Bear, Running

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We’re down to my final three images.  Truth is, I like them all about equally, so the order gets a bit random from here on in.  Today’s image is one that I did not post previously and it’s appearing here for the first time.

Transport in and out of Lake Clark National Park is by bush plane.  The planes land on and take off from the beach that fronts Cook Inlet.

One evening after dinner  we were observing a female bear and her two cubs.  They were enjoying a dip in the inlet’s waters when a bush plane, several hundred yards up the beach, took off in our direction.  The plane was airborne well before it reached us, but was flying at a low altitude, perhaps a hundred feet above our heads, when it passed over us.  The plane’s engine made a tremendous racket for a few seconds.

The noise frightened the female bear and she ran for a few yards down the beach until the plane was well past her.  I was fortunate in that I had my camera trained on her as she took flight, and I made this image.

I think that it captures the moment nicely.  The bear’s movement is accentuated by the slight motion blur of her legs, by the sand and gravel that she’s kicking up, and by the spray of water droplets that she’s throwing off her body,  as she runs.  She’s looking behind her, and her eyes are focussed on the plane as it passes over her.  She clearly has an apprehensive expression on her face.

Personally, I’d have very much preferred it if the bear hadn’t been annoyed by the plane.  But, I’m nevertheless grateful for the image.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f6.3 @ 1/800.


Year End Countdown # 4 — Coastal Brown Bear Cubs, Manning The Ramparts

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Bear cubs divide their days between eating, napping, and playing, with play taking up a very high percentage of the total.  The cubs play aggressively, staging mock battles, wrestling with each other, and engaging in games of tag.  The sheer inventiveness of their play brings home the realization of just how intelligent these animals are.  The cubs seem constantly to come up with new games, and they clearly take great pleasure in doing so.

One morning we watched a trio of cubs use a downed tree as a fort.  The cubs perched on the tree’s trunk, watching in seeming wariness for interlopers.  Of course, the only interlopers nearby were the humans with cameras, so for a minute or two, the cubs watched us.

The cubs quickly abandoned this game and began wrestling with each other, but not before I made this image of two of them on their ramparts.  I like this image for a lot of reasons.  It is a “landscape” in the sense that I’ve included quite a bit of background in the picture as well as the entire downed tree.  I really like the way the bears contrast with the blue-green forest behind them and the bone-white skeleton of the tree.  I also like the tall grass behind the bears, because it adds perspective to the image.  And, finally, I like the bears’ attitude and expressions.  Whenever I look at this picture I see just how much fun it is to be a cub.  The image describes the cubs’ lives far better than I can describe them in writing.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f6.3 @ 1/1000.

Year End Countdown # 5 — Loggerhead Shrike, A Question of Balance


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We’re down to my five favorite images of 2017.

I shot today’s image back on January 2 of this year.  I was driving on a rural road that morning looking for subjects to photograph.  I passed a farmyard where agricultural equipment and other items were being stored.  As I did, I looked up and saw a Loggerhead Shrike sitting on a utility wire.

I have a lot of photographs of shrikes, many of them perched on wires, and I wasn’t too enthusiastic about photographing this bird.  Nevertheless, I stopped for a moment, just to observe.  After a few seconds, the shrike jumped off the wire, descended, and landed momentarily on a dead weed just a few yards away from me.  The weed was too light to hold the shrike’s weight and it struggled for a second to balance itself, using its wings and spread tail as stabilizers.  I quickly pointed my camera at the shrike, took a couple of photos, and then, the bird gave up trying to perch on the weed and flew away.

I was delighted by my image.

It is dynamic, showing the shrike as it struggles to hang on to its flimsy perch.  But, what I really love about the shot is the contrast between the shrike and its background.  The shrike had alighted in front of a large metal shipping container, the type that is used in rail transport.  The rusty red, corrugated surface of the container provided a perfect contrast with the bird’s gray, white, and black plumage.

Good luck is a hugely important element of nature photography.  I wouldn’t have anticipated making this shot in a million years, but I’m keeping it.

Image made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 400, f8 @ 1/640.