March 10, 2022
Bald Eagle
There’s something about the charismatic megafauna, eagles and falcons, lions and bears, which draws us in, again and again.  I cannot, not, try to track down those two avian species with the camera whenever and wherever.  As for the mammals, I have only three of my own photographs on the wall in our entryway.  A Mountain Lion is the featured one, and the Spirit Bears of British Columbia are near the top of my photo bucket list.  For these things I need no excuses and make no apologies.

For the last hour I’ve been sitting on a large river rock, tucked back under the foliage of bankside mesquites.  I’ve seen only two species.  A male Belted Kingfisher rattled by, going upstream, and I’ve watched Song Sparrows glean Caddisfly larval cases from the shallows and pick them open.  These two species surely represent, respectively, one of the most wary and one of the least wary of avian species, but neither is my target species for the day.

I’m never easily bored with the camera in my hands, but my butt is going to sleep.  I stand up, turn my back to the river, and take two steps up the feeder trail to the bluff above, determined to try a different, more productive spot.  Behind me I hear something big hit the water.  I’ve seen carp in the shallows all morning, making lots of commotion as spawning season begins, and these big fish can weigh in excess of ten pounds, but whatever made this much noise moving this much water was no carp!

It is rare to hear a sudden, unexpectedly loud noise in nature and know exactly what it is before your eyes reveal the source.  This is one of those times, and I know exactly what just happened.  There is only one thing that would make that large a splash hitting the water and, by the sound, it is very close.  So close that, despite my intuition being correct, I am nonetheless astonished when I turn and see, through the fringe of mesquite, a Bald Eagle sitting in the middle of the river, amidst bank-to-bank ripples, not thirty yards away.  My target species has found me!

I have brought my telephoto lens, and the eagle is much too close to get everything in the frame.  I try to minimize movement and noise, muttering to myself, as I maneuver the tripod legs amongst the trees to get a clear shot, and I realize I am not breathing.  I breathe and then realize the eagle must be aware of my presence, “eagle eyes,” right, but just doesn’t care.  I’m guessing it came down from somewhere on the bluff behind me, unaware of my presence until it hit the water.

It seems to be just sitting there, doing nothing, monstrous to me in its proximity.  The mid-river water depth is about two feet max.  I have seen Bald Eagles bathe many times, many places, always in shallows near the shoreline, always as “walk-ins.”  What is this bird doing, its body more than half submerged?  Then it begins to . . . struggle.  It pays me no attention.  I see it appears to be standing on something, a very large river rock perhaps, seemingly trying to balance itself.

Then it raises its wings, flailing, flinging water everywhere, and finally I see and understand.  The eagle is standing on a carp!  It is the largest fish I have ever seen in person.  I do not fish, but I’ve seen the pictures, happy men in baseball hats holding huge fish longer than the width of their shoulders with two hands, those shoulders straining under the weight of their catch.  That size fish!

I’ve also read the occasional stories, Osprey and eagles unable to lift a catch from the water, yet unable to release it from their talons and drowning.  As I try to imagine how a rescue might go down given this bird’s size and that lethal beak, it breaks one foot free and begins to laboriously “fly-hop” the beautiful orange lunker to the opposite shore, dragging it one step at a time, flapping fully extended wings to help every step of the way.

The struggle takes ten minutes, with several rest stops.  I watch in awe and admiration. When the bird finally achieves the opposite gravel bar, it does exactly what I expected, still paying me no attention.  I walk slowly out from the trees and hunker at water’s edge and watch it feast on its hard-won prize, the tremendous beak now bloody.  Knowing light angle and lens length are less than ideal, I shoot several hundred frames anyway.  Only a handful will be keepers, but the scene will be a video, etched forever in my mind.  I cannot bring myself to leave until the meal is over and the bird flies off.  Megafauna always have that effect on me.
Bald Eagle