Don’t plan on it

[Another meaningless milestone: this post is the 2021st, and it’s the 2021st year since jesus was born only not really because early chroniclers got the dates wrong and he may not even have existed anyway and why the hell are we still using this idiotic dating system? It’s year 60, since we entered into space – let’s start using that. Anyway, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to do anything again with the year and post counts, unless I stop right here and post nothing more for, oh, another eight-plus months, but I’m not that dedicated to a silly coincidence. I just stalled some of the cooler photos taken recently to meet this conjunction.]

There’s a certain level of irony in preparedness when it comes to nature photography – probably other topics too, but we’re not on that kind of blog. Yet you can plan and prepare and overthink an outing or shooting session, intent on getting some kind of subject, and get nowhere, only to snag much better photos without any intention at some other point in time.

As mentioned earlier, The Girlfriend and I made a little run to pick up some materials and did a side trip on the way back to stop by Jordan Lake, mostly just to see what was going on, but I did at least take along the camera and long lens. The day was almost totally overcast, far from ideal, but at least this kept the region a little quieter when it came to boaters and kayakers. Not expecting much, we were just scanning the area.

Almost immediately, a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) cruised by low overhead, not allowing much of a clear shot, but then took a perch not far off in a clear tree.

bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus perched in tree next to vulture effigy
This was unprecedented, at least in my experience, because this tree sat between two boat ramps in a fairly busy section of the lake, with lots of quieter options to be found less than a minute’s flight away, including the spots where we’d been seeing the species last year. The thing suspended from the tree below the eagle, by the way, is the still-present remnant of the vulture effigy program, clearly of stunning effectiveness.

We decided to see how close we could get to the eagle, since there’s a lakeside trail that wends along behind that tree, and started off slowly. As expected, the eagle didn’t wait around long at all, and flew off without my ever obtaining a clear, closer view, but we waited to see if it would return or at least wheel overhead. The wait was perhaps thirty seconds, as I caught a glimpse of a large bird overhead immediately before it slammed into the water not 15 meters away; my view was obscured by trees, and before I could move and obtain clear focus, the bird (now revealed to be an osprey, Pandion haliaetus) launched from the water with its successful capture in talon and flew off along a more obscured route, so all I had were unfocused grabs.

This miss was not indicative of anything, however, as soon another started circling straight out from where we were, fairly low and obviously hunting.

osprey Pandion haliaetus wheeling overhead
This helped correct a misconception that I had, I admit, which was that fishing birds were more likely to hunt in brighter sunlight, when the light would penetrate the water better, than on overcast days when the entire sky will reflect from the surface and reduce the ability to see within. I’ve never had the opportunity to see the water from an osprey’s altitude, or with an osprey’s eyes either, so maybe I’m missing something, but they certainly seemed to like fishing more in the dimmer conditions. Soon enough, there was a pair wheeling around.

pair of ospreys Pandion haliaetus actively fishing
Looking through the viewfinder as I followed the one, I wasn’t even aware of the other approaching until it entered the frame, but got lucky enough to snag it before it left. The focused one is ‘backing,’ going into a near hover which is often an indication that it spots something and is about to begin the ‘stoop,’ the dive after prey. It did this quite a lot, producing several false starts as I kept an eye on it to capture the full descent.

osprey Pandion haliaetus backing before beginning stoop after a fish
It did indeed make a dive, and the lens did the typical focus racking (which I thought I’d programmed out of it) while I tried with little success to keep it centered in the frame as it accelerated down into the water – I should at least back off the zoom a little, make it easier on myself, but I will admit that, with a heavy lens and the acceleration of the bird, it’s more than slightly tricky. The osprey was unsuccessful in capturing anything, though, and flew off into the middle distance as I switched attention to the other.

Before that one started exhibiting any backing, however, The Girlfriend pointed out that the first had returned, to the same general location in the sky, and was once again actively fishing. Very soon, it went into a stoop again.

osprey Pandion haliaetus descending in stoop
Some idea of how close it was to shore is shown by the treelimb here (another damnable longneedle pine) that it actually passed behind as it dove. Once again, focus twitched away at the crucial point as it crossed the horizon line, so I have no good frames of its entry.

[A brief note here: the camera body has some settings to restrict how the autofocus behaves, but limiting how much it might wander in attempting to track a moving subject also limits how quickly it can obtain a new subject, so an advantage in one set of subjects is a disadvantage in another, and I’m still refining my settings. The Tamron has an optional doodad to do more direct programming of the lens itself, a cool innovation, and I finally purchased one, but as yet have not tackled it. I should be doing that instead of posting, I suppose.]

But we have a peek as the osprey paused momentarily in the water before launching itself back out, at least.

osprey Pandion haliaetus immediately after fishing dive, wings raised within the water
It had gone completely under, obviously aiming for a fish a little deeper under the surface, so again, good visibility to the osprey. And then it took off, and I had a clear view and tight focus.

osprey Pandion haliaetus rising from water with a fish in either talon
Two fish simultaneously! I was impressed, and happy to be capturing the photos. In fact, let’s have a closer look.

closeup of fish from previous frame
Given all of the motion at this point in time, I’m not complaining about this at all. Anyone want to identify the fish species? I mean, besides, ‘toast’?

And away it went with its supersized takeout meal, one heads, one tails.

osprey Pandion haliaetus flying off with fish in either talon
My real view was a bit farther off than this – it’s a tighter crop, but that just shows that focus here at least was bang on. The Girlfriend lamented (on seeing the pics at home) that it was a shame the head wasn’t visible, which is true enough, but I’m cool with this for now.

The other osprey had moved farther off, so we headed back towards the car, catching another glimpse of the eagle (or an eagle, at least) as we did so, but still obscured by trees. It was low, once again, and visible over a wooded section that sits between the two parking lots for the boat ramps, and I was starting to get suspicious that there might be a nest back in there, especially after hearing an eagle call and seeing what appeared to be harassing behavior from a vulture. But nothing remained visible, and so we elected to leave.

On our way up the parking lot, I remarked that I wasn’t removing the long lens until we’d reached the car, since I’d snagged the previous eagles from that very area as I was examining a flock of vultures wheeling overhead, as they were on this day too. Less than thirty seconds after saying this, we both heard the distinctive calls of an eagle, seemingly from right alongside the parking lot in the trees very close by (opposite the suspected nest site, however,) and within two more seconds it broke from cover and cruised low overhead.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus cruising past
It’s amusing when I think about how long I went without any eagle photos at all, and only the barest views of them for years, and abruptly, the tide has shifted. The eagle activity down at the lake has exploded, it seems, but I’m not complaining, even though I like the osprey better (bald eagles are way over-photographed.) By the way, the time frame between the first eagle photo and the last, here, was a mere 24 minutes – not bad for a casual outing.

As a small postscript, I was faintly confused when unloading the memory card back home, since it seemed that a few frames were out of order, when I realized that the first osprey we’d seen, the one that slipped away without providing a clear view, had also snagged two fish at once. Now it’s just starting to seem greedy…