The End of the Free Lunch, Bald Eagle Style

There are a pair of Bald Eagles regularly seen perched on the Chemung River where I-86 comes along the river.  The location is commonly called the Pressware Pool because of the glass plant the sits to the south of the pool. –This is where Corning’s Corelle dishes were developed.–  I found this pair’s nest this summer about 2 miles upriver and watched their fledglings testing their wings.  The location was inaccessible for photos.

This week, I found a boat launch ramp at Pressware that allows me to follow the eagles from my car. Call it a photo blind on wheels.  On Friday, I parked with my beanbag hung over the window sill and a long lens ready, and simply waited for birds.  After about a half-hour, an adult Bald Eagle mysteriously appeared, likely while I was scanning downriver with my binoculars.   I shot a few photos, but there really was no interesting behavior.  In another half hour, the bird went about 300 yards downriver to a perch in a tall pine tree a scant one hundred yards above the busy highway.  I could watch the bird in my binoculars, and in time saw it launch in a long shallow approach to the opposite bank in what appeared to be a strike at prey.

To my surprise, the bird headed not to that distant perch, but back upriver to the tall willows opposite me.  Such luck!  I could not see if it had a fish even with binoculars, but was also quickly switching to my camera.  Once on the perch, it obviously was tearing a fish apart. Now that is interesting.

Each time I get a close look at a Bald Eagle, I am impressed with their broad shouldered, brawny build.  They are so much heavier than the Osprey such that there is little danger of confusing them.

I never got a good look at the fish. It must have been small.  But, I could at times see that the eagle’s beak was soiled a rich red.

After a while, the eagle seemed to slow its feeding.  Perhaps as its hunger was met, it took a more measured meal. It’s posture was often upright in an attentive pose.

Soon, I noted a change in the bird’s posture on the perch.  Eagles assume a more horizontal form when preparing to take flight. This is a tip-off to prepare to take photos.  But, this bird had food. Why would it be leaving? In a short minute, it took off in a strong, deliberate flight downriver.

Quickly, the reason became obvious.  There was a thief in the neighborhood.  Sometimes the thief is in the family, so to speak.

I had not seen this immature Bald Eagle, and can only presume it was out of my binocular range, or in a hidden perch.  The adult was in no mood to share. The encounter developed rapidly, with no false posturing. The adult just went straight into the target,  driving it into the tree branches.  Amazing to see!

The immature quickly turned tail, and retreated downriver.  Some time later, I saw an immature soaring along the steep hillside some  one-half mile away. It never came back within range.

The situation corrected, the adult returned to it’s perch.

This is an interesting window into Bald Eagle behavior.  When hatched, the young are helpless to feed themselves, just like humans. Once fledged, they still are inexperienced at fishing.  The adults feed them, but at some time they have to fish or fail.  So it is with our children too.  At sometime, they need to be pushed out into the world to survive.

I’ve seen elsewhere where an adult, returning to its perch with a large fish, is robbed by an immature. When in flight with a heavy load, the adult is at a big disadvantage.  I assume this adult knew that the best solution was to drive the immature away at a distance rather than defend the fish from a static position.

Considering that this eagle pair will likely start a new cycle of nesting in early March, their first need is to come through the winter in good condition.  The free buffet for last year’s brood is over. Time to prepare for the next.

Photo Details:  Nikon D300s, 1/800 sec. f/6.3 @ISO 1600, 825mm equivalent; processed Lightroom 3 with noise reduction

Paul Schmitt

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