Enough with the eagles

2nd year juvenile bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus cruising overhead
Mr Bugg and I had another outing to Jordan Lake yesterday, because we’re both intrigued about what might be happening with the eagle pair. The above image is not one of the pair, but a 2nd-year juvenile that nonetheless came much closer than any of the others, and thus provided a better image to open with. What follows will be from much greater distances.

Immediately upon arriving, we could see one of the adult bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) hanging out on the dead tree near the osprey nest, and so we kept our eyes on it, as well as the immediate area, and sure enough, the second of the pair soon made an appearance. Neither of them was inclined to get within several hundred meters though, so every image that we could obtain had them very small within the frame.

Eventually, one of them skimmed out over the lake and dropped low over the water, and we soon witnessed some hunting behavior. Unfortunately, the weather conditions appear to have caused a body of warmer air to be hovering directly over the lake surface, and this was enough to badly distort all images that were obtained so close – these will not be impressive, but we’re concentrating on the behavior right now anyway.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus diving on jumping fish
The bright spot over the the right is a fish jumping; the eagle was already making its approach when this happened, but it appeared to be homing in to that exact spot.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus contacting fish that just jumped
The eagle is about to make contact with the water in a typical “running grab,” while you can see the residual splash from the fish.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus in water after snagging fish
But the running grab obviously didn’t work and the eagle splashed down, much like osprey do; this was the first I’d seen this happen, but the remaining images might hint at why.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus clearly struggling with large fish that it caught
By naked eye, the eagle was only discernible as a white spot that was easy to lose, occasionally flashing as it thrashed about, struggling with the fish that remained out of sight below the surface.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus clearly struggling with large fish that it cannot raise from the water
Even, at times, mooning us as it raised its tail high during the struggle. At no point did it even begin to flap its wings in an attempt to take off.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus still unable to raise fish from water
I checked the timestamps: it was over four-and-a-half minutes that the eagle sat in the water struggling with its capture. I lamented not having the tripod with me to lock the camera onto and shoot this as video, but the distortion wasn’t apparent in the viewfinder – the video would have been nigh-worthless anyway. But some time soon after this frame, the eagle rose from the water; I wasn’t looking right at it at the time (that’s a long time to keep a heavy lens trained on a stationary object,) but I suspect it was because a couple of hydrofoil surfers were drawing too close, perhaps not even aware that there was an eagle there. So I only realized it as I saw the eagle circling back in the same area. Which is where it gets even more interesting.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus making another run on fish in water
I compared the background trees (largely cropped out of these frames so you’re not just looking at specks,) and I’m pretty certain the eagle, now airborne, is closing in on the same area where it had struggled with the fish – you can just make out the orange spots of the extended talons if you look closely. What I think is happening here is that the eagle decided that raising the fish wasn’t working, and it took off and circled around to make a running grab at it instead, perhaps hoping that the speed and established lift would be enough.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus grasping and trying to raise fish from water while flying
It’s got ahold of something now, but the distortion and distance were too much to resolve details.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus almost pitching into water while trying to raise fish
Maybe it’s just from freezing a moment in time, but it certainly looks like the eagle is pitching over from the weight and drag of the fish. This is supported by the next frame…

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus abandoning fish as too large to carry back home
… because there’s the eagle letting it go, the residual splash still faintly visible. To all appearances, the eagle snagged a fish too big to actually carry – which is pretty big indeed. I thought I was witnessing this last year with an osprey, but that one did indeed manage to get airborne, though its climb out was slow and labored.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus approaching another in tree after abandoning fish
Having had enough with its hunting efforts, the eagle headed back empty-taloned for the dead tree where the other had been perched patiently – not the same dead three near the osprey nest that they’d been favoring, but one not far away. Again, this is at a great distance, so it was only after seeing the images at home that I pieced together what likely happened.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus apparently attempting to alight on branch with another eagle
Because the limb that was in use as a perch wasn’t very big, but the returning eagle seemed to think it could hold the both of them, and there was a momentary struggle/altercation…

pair of adult bald eagles Haliaeetus leucocephalus both abandoning branch after near collision
… which dislodged both of them – probably not the best way to return home to the spouse after failing to procure food.

[I say ‘spouse’ but the relationship isn’t exactly clear, to me anyway. They obviously hang out together, and the repeated behavior and preference for certain perches, and the area overall, seems to indicate that we’re seeing the same pair each day. But why aren’t they nesting?]

I lost track of who was who in that tussle, and so I tracked one now heading over to the favorite dead tree without knowing which one it was.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus drying feathers while perched in dead tree
That one took a perch, much as the stationary one had before, but after a few minutes (by the timestamps, this is seven minutes after dislodging,) this one began to exhibit drying behavior, leading me to believe it as the one that had been fishing instead. I kind of had it in my mind that the female was remaining perched while the male hunted, partially because this is the kind of thing that happens when courting, for many species, but I can’t vouch for whether or not eagles behave this way, and there’s no dependable method for determining sexes.

Later on, they took off and eventually, one lit onto the tree holding the osprey nest again, perching close to but not on or within the nest. and after a while, the other approached again.

adult bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus approaching another perched alongside osprey nest, both calling
I like this frame for the expressiveness of it, both appearing rather antagonistic, but they’re simply calling exuberantly to each other, audible even at our great distance. I don’t know who’s making the approach here, but it was with much greater grace than the previous attempt at least, and nobody got their feathers ruffled.

pair of adult bald eagles Haliaeetus leucocephalus enjoying domestic life alongside osprey nest
And they remained there together until shortly before sunset at least, when we knew there would be no more interesting behavior and wanted to try for the sunset on another portion of the lake anyway (a spit of land blocks the westward view from this area, but it’s good for sunrise.) Here, one of them appears larger than the other, often an indication of the female among raptors, but I’m not exactly sure this isn’t due to the one on the left hunching slightly with its tail raised higher.

So far, seeing activity in this area has been dependable, and the pairing seems established as well – here’s hoping that it continues, and even better, that they set up a nest nearby. The osprey are coming due for reappearing in the region – they seem to migrate south for the winter while the eagles stay put, and my first image of an osprey last year was March 7th. Will any osprey attempt to return to that nest, or is it now eagle territory (even when they aren’t yet inclined to use it for anything?) Only time, and more visits, will tell.

At the same time, I have to ensure that I’m not getting in a rut, and make some excursions to other wildlife areas as well, get a little variety in. Maybe we need some more nutria

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