(This post was originally published in January, 2010)
The more I watch/photograph bald eagles, the more I’m amazed at their skills. A little over a week ago, I drove to Clarksville, MO for a few days of photographing wintering bald eagles on the Mississippi River. With our recent frigid temperatures, there were quite a few eagles concentrated there. I also learned that the number of shad, the fish that the eagles usually feed upon at this location, were remarkedly reduced this year; so much so that the Missouri Conservation Department is concerned that there may be an insufficient quantity of fish there for the eagles to feed on. And the shad that was there was very small; I saw numerous fish 5-6 inches long being transported back to a tree by an eagle. There were some sizable fish caught (not sure of species), but they were few and far between. Interestingly enough, I observed two distinct behaviors of the bald eagles that I attribute to the low number of shad this year.
First, many times a bald eagle would swoop down and pluck a fish from the water (usually a very small fish, maybe 5-6 inches long) in their talons. Then, either they would drop the fish (because they were so small) or, they would immediately bend their head down to their talons and grab the fish with their beak. I had never witnessed this behavior before, although I have been to this location 3-4 times before this year.The second observation made was of the tremendous amount of piracy that the eagles were exhibiting. Piracy is not an unusual behavior for eagles, but it seemed like there was nonstop piracy going on. When I photograph wildlife, I always try to capture behaviors. Consequently, I worked hard at catching some of the piracy going on. I was pretty successful, but the conditions were not great. First, most of the eagle activity occurs at least halfway across the Mississippi River (and that’s a long ways!). Secondly, winter often yields a white cloud cover which makes for horrible exposures. But I did manage to capture one sequence that was pretty interesting. I’ve included a few frames of this activity below:
In this first frame, note the eagle carrying a fish in his talons, with 6 eagles chasing!
In the next frame, note that the eagle has dropped the fish:
In the following frame, note the immature bald eagle twisting and extending talons for the fish:
In this last frame, note the immature eagle has extended his talons and is grabbing the fish:
One mistake I made was I stopped shooting 1-2 frames before I should have! I would have loved to have the next frame or so, just to capture the immature eagle with the fish securely clutched within his talons! I know better, but the excitement of the moment took over and I missed “the rest of the story”. Oh well, guess I’ll have to just go back and try again!