Visibly different, part 35

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus disappearing into distance
Our opening image is crappy – I’ll admit that, but it’s kinda the point of these posts so don’t get too excited. It comes from 2018 but isn’t really the first image of a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in the wild that I’ve taken – it’s the first that I can lay hands on. But first, a little backstory.

This area of central NC had never been a decent place to spot bald eagles, and I was largely resigned to not getting any kind of good images unless I traveled elsewhere. They were around, but scarce and always maintaining a great distance. Yet in 2006, a friend and I did a trip out to the coast, and on Lake Mattamuskeet we spotted a raptor wheeling in the distance – the great distance. I was primarily shooting slides, but got out the Canon Pro90 IS digital to fire off a couple of frames because I could zoom way in on the preview image, which contained just barely enough detail to show what appeared to be a white head. Encouraged by this, we backtracked and headed in the direction we’d seen the bird. Long story short: we got quite close to a perched bald eagle, only it was on the opposite side of the car than I was, and my attempt to slip out surreptitiously spooked the eagle off before I could snag any photos. My friend, however, got several great frames right out his car window. That initial digital image of mine that had prompted the efforts wasn’t even worth keeping and got discarded.

Perhaps even before then, there was the release of a rehabilitated injured eagle, and the same friend and I were on hand for photos. We took up stations in opposing directions, and of course upon release the eagle stayed low and swooped in my friend’s direction, allowing him to once again get some slick shots while I mostly saw the backs of people’s heads.

Finally in 2018, Mr Bugg and I spotted a bald eagle low over Jordan Lake as I was driving along the causeway, and quickly pulled in to the closest parking area to go out and scan the skies. We saw not the faintest sign, but on carefully creeping to a new vantage point, we heard the launch of a large bird directly overhead in the trees, and by the time we could maneuver to a clear view, the eagle was already quite distant – that’s the image above, and it’s even cropped closer. Proof that they seemed to be more present than before, but little else.

In 2020, the luck was getting a little better.

likely second year juvenile bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus in flight
This is a juvenile of course, but significantly closer now (still cropped – almost all of these will be) and showing some distinct details. The sky could naturally have been much better, but you take what you can get. This is still Jordan Lake – these are all at Jordan.

We ended up seeing a lot more juveniles than adults, perhaps partially because they’re not as spooky as the adults and thus fly a bit closer to people. Nonetheless, in 2021 I managed a sequence of frames of a fishing adult, farther off than I’d have liked and not the best of light angles, but these remain perhaps the best frames of a wild adult that I have so far.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus lowering its feet
I had a whole sequence of the descent and capture in the post at that time, but I think I like this one best for the light and position, though it vies with the last one in this post – I’ll let you decide.

Last year I added quite a few frames of the species to my stock, including some from central New York (two trips,) and suddenly it seemed like bald eagles were no longer a “someday” goal but a viable subject for extended images. This year, my luck has been even better in regards to getting close.

juvenile bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus providing noble profile
This one landed in the tree closest to me while I was pursuing images of fledgling red-headed woodpeckers, and sat there for twenty minutes – this is not cropped at all, and while it is shot at 600mm, I could have tagged the eagle with a water balloon. Well, probably not, because my aim sucks, but it was close enough if I had more skill than I do. And the eagle might have appreciated this, because it was definitely feeling the heat that day.

A few weeks later, another close opportunity, possibly even the same bird.

juvenile bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus glaring down from above
This one’s cropped, true, but for dramatic effect, since it was maybe marginally farther than the previous, just not noticeably so. Can’t complain about the light or conditions at all for this one. For demonstrations of progress, these all work pretty well.

To what can I credit this? Mostly, the greater prevalence of the species in the first place – that’s the bulk of it in a nutshell. To a small extent, the knowledge of their profiles and flight habits, and their calls, alerted me to opportunities that I might have missed without them. The one immediately above was seen from hundreds of meters away, confirmed with the long lens, and then approached carefully. One of the juveniles from New York was obtained by hearing a call and seeing an adult fly off, and suspecting that a juvenile might remain nearby, which turned out to be correct – that’s where a little understanding of bird behavior helps out. But mostly, it’s the greater numbers – and being out there in the first place.

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