On our way

While we had several warm spells far earlier than normal, interspersed with some overnight lows dropping below freezing, I think spring is getting a toehold now, and the critters and plants are on schedule. The Insoluble Mr Bugg and I went down to Jordan Lake Friday for a late afternoon and sunset shoot, and there were a few subjects to be found, though it’s not quite the active season yet. I’ll be displaying a couple of full-frame and cropped shots for comparison herein.

Only a few bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) peeked out, and I’ll feature a sequence later on, but for now, the juvenile that appeared.

juvenile bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus cruising overhead
This is full-frame at 600mm, with the eagle roughly 60 meters overhead, give or take far too great a margin – I’m just guessing, really, and have no way of measuring with any kind of accuracy. Suffice to say that it was just close enough to know that it was an eagle, and not a vulture or osprey. But now the closer look.

juvenile bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus displaying curious plumage pattern, possibly transitioning into fourth year
That coloration doesn’t fit any of the depicted phases of development that I have, but I believe we’re seeing an eagle entering its fourth year, as they gain their well-known adult plumage of deep brown body and white head and tail. There’s a faint hint of the eye-stripe that denotes their third year, but none of the belly mottling and only a smidgen on the wings, so I think it’s time for the mitzvah. You can also see a new feather coming in on the right wingtip.

Did a little better with the osprey (Pandion haliaetus,) who have just started appearing in earnest.

osprey Pandion haliaetus passing overhead
Full-frame again, and given that osprey are perhaps 2/3 the size of eagles, this one is clearly half the distance away, or less. But this isn’t close enough for a crucial detail, so we shamelessly crop (or at least I do) to show off something that I didn’t recognize at the time.

osprey Pandion haliaetus overhead with small fish capture
We saw nothing at all of the action, but this one clearly had a little snack that it was carrying to a good perch, probably a perch. Okay, I have no idea what it is, because my knowledge of fish species is abysmal, probably only slightly better than the osprey’s knowledge but with considerably less skill in catching any.

Another, because of course I had to.

overhead osprey Pandion haliaetus giving stinkeye
Cropped a bit, but the sun nicely showed off the osprey realizing it had been made. By the way, all of these, I think, were shot with a full stop overexposure to compensate for the brightness of the sky, which retained the blue while still preventing the undersides of the birds from dropping too deeply into shadow. The sky was scattered haze and high-altitude clouds, so the colors varied a lot depending on the direction that we were facing.

The red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) were only occasionally visible, and I don’t think we’ve yet entered nesting season for them, but it’s close.

red-headed woodpecker Melanerpes erythrocephalus perched on perforated pine
Full-frame once again, and this time I could have determined the distance much better, had I tramped through the bracken to the base of this tree, though that wasn’t really the purpose and it would have spooked all of the woodpeckers from the area. It’s funny – I would have easily said this one was much closer than the osprey or eagle because I could walk there, but the evidence is that it was only a little less distant as the eagle, and notably further than either osprey. We’re used to measuring things horizontally, but vertically (and with no frames of reference) is much harder – from having worked on ladders more than enough, I can attest that determining how high up I am is wildly inaccurate. But let’s go in closer:

red-headed woodpecker Melanerpes erythrocephalus with possible nest cavities
Clearly an adult now, but recently an adult (as in, last year’s brood) or not is impossible for me to say. This was within a few dozen meters of the nest that I observed at length last year, which itself is showing no signs of activity, but then again this particular tree may be in use before too long. I would approve of that – it’s much easier to view than the one last year, requiring no wading into the lake, and sits in enough of an opening in the canopy to have good light for a decent portion of the day. I’m keeping an eye on it (well, not right now, because I’m typing, but whenever I’m down there at least.)

One of the osprey nests that we observed last year appears to be occupied again.

pair of osprey Pandion haliaetus perched alongside nest in tree
This is from well around the shoreline of a small bay on the lake, while it is possible to get a much closer look through the tree about 90° off of this angle – but then, they can also see me, and this might make them antsy. Either way, the angle isn’t sufficient to see anything except the last week or two before the young fledge out of the nest, and I missed that last year, but I’ll try to make more trips this time around. There’s evidence that the other nest that I viewed two years ago is occupied as well, though it’s considerably farther away.

And now, for some shitty pictures but a sequence of behavior that I was at least pleased to witness. I saw a raptor heading away into the distance but, looking essentially up its tail feathers, I couldn’t determine what it was, so I just locked onto it and tracked it through the long lens. In moments, it converged on another bird, and they did a quick spiral or two as they met, at least letting me see some wing color as it happened.

bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus harassing osprey Pandion haliaetus into dropping fish
This is full-frame again, obviously quite distant – like several hundred meters. Going in closer lets us see one crucial detail better, though:

bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus harassing osprey Pandion haliaetus into dropping fish
That’s enough to see that it’s a bald eagle on the right, an osprey in the center, and an abruptly dropped fish on the left. Thirty years ago in raptor rehabilitation training, I’d been told that eagles often nested near osprey to harass them into dropping fish to save themselves the trouble of catching their own, but had never once witnessed the behavior. Until now.

bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus veering off from osprey Pandion haliaetus to pursue dropped fish
The intent was very clear, as the eagle immediately turned to pursue the falling fish.

bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus diving after airborne fish
This is full-frame to give an idea of my view through the camera, and it wasn’t until now, when the flashing fish passed in front of the darker trees, that I fully realized what had happened. I wished that I had it on video but immediately realized that, without a lot of specific prep, the video clip would be garbage, worse than these photos even.

The eagle turned back in our direction and passed reasonably close by, yet autofocus proved to be balky again, so this is softer than it should be.

bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus clutching tiny stolen meal
The fish isn’t really visible here, but the clutching talons no longer tucked neatly up under the tail feathers say enough, as if that smug little smile didn’t. This is our national bird, people – dwell on that.

The sunset photos followed immediately after this, but the post is long enough and they’ll be along tomorrow. Gotta milk it, you know…

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