Gonna Need a Change of Feathers

Greetings everyone. Sitting here in our dentist parking lot waiting for Linda to finish getting some work done. How times have changed as now I actually long to sit in a real “waiting” room vs being cooped up in a vehicle. Looking at the positives, this situation is quite conducive to cranking out a post. We are still in the “fresh” post part of the week putting the focus on more recent outings. While perusing the options in the queue, noticed that I left everyone hanging on the third part of the latest Eagle experiences at Davenport lock and dam. Along with the traditional shots (link here) and the action shots (link here), promised you some highlights of new behaviors seen above the water. The Eagles were quite active that day showing off their skilz for the dozen or so photographers lined up to see the show.

A quick recap to get everyone in the mood. First relax the legs and line up the approach.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Then cock the legs to prepare for the impact.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Finally stab to break the water’s surface.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Hit the jump to read about my new experiences that day – one was quite comical.

Each sortie bringing a symphony of shutter sounds followed quickly by excited voices as the audience chimped at their LCD displays. Can’t help but visualize a line of Eagles waiting in the trees for their turn in the spotlight. After tracking a half dozen runs, something caught my eye – intrigued me if you will. Took a few minutes to put my finger on it.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Up to this point, my numerous Eagle outings along the Mighty Mississippi were quite routine – at least from a photography perspective. Find the Eagles, wait for them to launch out into the water from a nearby tree, fight the all-powerful blur gods to get a crisp shot of the grab and then watch them engage their powerful wings to haul their trophy back to gorge in the tree line.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

The common behavior in those previous scenarios was the prize remained in the talons for the entire flight back to the perch. The behavior being displayed in Davenport was similar up to the grab, however, once firmly in talons, it would transfer the fish to the beak. Quite the acrobatic maneuver considering they were stabilizing from the impact, freeing themselves from the drag of the water and then trying to gather enough air under the wings to lift with the additional weight.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Now focused more on the post grab action, noticed time and time again the Eagles were opting to move the fish up to their beaks. The next two shots are apologetically soft, but left them in as they showed the direct transfer point – typically the head goes to the feet which seems incredibly contrary to their efforts to rise.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Not to mention the unlucky prey was surely struggling to resist with whatever life was left after being pierced by those razor tipped weapons.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Normally the focus was limited to the grab and now my interest had been pushed beyond that point – was this always happening and overlooked, was it a new behavior and if so, what was the catalyst.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Opted to pull my eye away from the glass and just enjoy this new experience. Clearly one sighting does not equate to a scientific experiment, so this is only offered up as a hypothesis pending further field work. One possibility is it could be a learned behavior to counter a very common scenario – “The Slacker Tailgate”

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Guarantee if you have had the pleasure of watching multiple Eagles hunt open waters you will have seen this happen. More times than not, another Eagle will spot a competitor go in for a run. This opportunist will adjust its flight abruptly and slide in right behind the tail of the descending Eagle with one agenda – steal the prize

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

This isn’t just limited to less experienced immatures trying to score easy food – adults will do the exact same thing with the added touch of singing Blondie’s “One way or another I’m gonna find ya I’m gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha one way or another.” Eagle answer to our Jaws theme song.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Best way to combat this – free up the best defense mechanism.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

This does make the transfer point an opportune time to attack, but from the examples I was able to witness (to a lesser number photograph) there was no incidents at this point.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

The tailgater was usually a good 4 to 5 body lengths behind which left a lot of ground – err water — to cover in a brief amount of time.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Once the transfer was completed it was just matter of getting enough lift to make it out of the kill zone. The slacker would give up and head back for another victim once the move was successful – even a slight brush with those freed up razors could do some serious damage.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Now it could just be an Eagle Flight Program where the trailer is simply trying to get enough runs to complete the required number of college credits. This will remain a mystery until I finish my own How to Speak Eagle class – which at this point in the workbook just looks like a lot of screeching gibberish.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Thought this next Eagle was just showing off with one in the beak and one on in the feet, but under further scrutiny realized it was just making fists to go a few rounds with a tailgater.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

We were not done with the new experiences that day. What seemed like a natural progression, this specimen took it up a level.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

This isn’t the best perspective.. let’s bring you in a bit.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Can you see it now!?! This is absolutely the first time I’ve ever seen an Eagle gobble down a whole fish on the fly – screw those pesky slackers. Can’t even begin to count how many shots I have of Eagles sitting in a tree ripping the flesh out of the middle of a fish with those perfectly designed beaks. Taking a page right out of a Heron playbook now.

Okay, one more funny scene to wrap up the day’s shoot. Saw this taking shape a considerable distance out on the river. There was a lone Eagle circling near a group of Common Mergansers slowly moving against the current. Now this could be exciting. On about the third circle, the Eagle was lined up and started its descent directly in line with the Mergansers.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

The female Merganser noticed first and start paddling like crazy in an attempt to get out of the path – a definite struggle against the strong current – this Eagle knew what it was doing. The extra flapping from the female likely alerted the males out front causing them to also push the throttle.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Eagle was dropping altitude and gaining speed prompting the targets to paddle their little hearts out. Shutter was on full blast now.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, we’re dead…”. Shocked they didn’t just dive to get out of danger. Apparently I and the Mergansers totally misread the situation. The Eagle dropped to the water about 4 feet past the group.

Bald Eagles found in Davenport IA in February 2021

Fish was on the menu tonight. The second that Eagle passed over the Mergansers stopped their furious paddling and went back to their calm cool demeanor. Not fooling me, I’m sure at least one of them peed their feathers hehehe.

Yikes, this post went way longer than I intended. Linda must be getting waterboarded in there. Hope you enjoyed today’s new experiences. Nothing is more fulfilling than being in the field and learning something new about our feathered friends.

16 thoughts on “Gonna Need a Change of Feathers”

    1. Thanks Tim! With all the good fishing in the Mississippi, the Quad City Eagle residents are definitely active during the colder months as they are pushed down from the freezing waters up north. Not good on the fingers, but definitely fun to watch them hunt. Appreciate you dropping in – still chuckling over the Spunk catalog shot.

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      1. Spunk’s a real character. We don’t have a large population of bald eagles. They tend to commute up and down the Rio Grande rather than fish in it. The Rio Grande is not the best fishing. I’ve never seen a raptor with a fish, but I have seen osprey with gophers.

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  1. This was almost too exciting for my first thing in the morning reading. I was actually looking forward to a Eagle/Merganser encounter as I would love to see the Eagle transfer that from talon to beek in mid flight!😂🤣
    Ok, I better decrease my heart rate and go make some more pot holders. They say I could have a side hustle doing this…hummmm… taxes, book keeping, material shortages….nope! Maybe I can convert them to wallpaper. Stay safe and post more exciting and unique shots to keep us all level and sane here. Hahaha.

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    1. Seems like that extended Dutch lockdown has you looking for blood hehehe! Truth be told, the Eagle’s lift ability is less than what you would expect, so not sure how much danger those Mergansers were really in although it certainly looked like that Eagle was going to prove me wrong (Owls on the other hand have incredible lift ability and with those hanging about in our woods we keep a tight eye on our furballs). I think we need to see these pot holders – just set them in the canoe and it will fit your theme perfectly. Will keep the posts coming – not sure if there are more action shots ready to go yet, but definitely some interesting birds. Stay safe and sane.

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      1. I have seen Eagles carry off large salmon so a duck would not surprise me.
        Great idea on the potholder canoe thing although I think today I would be chasing my towel and pot holder to Norway with these winds. The meteorologists said these winds Are Not Armageddon! Sure….let’s just believe that.😳

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  2. Holy cow, this post is fantastic. What a great opportunity to observe eagle behavior – thanks so much for including the “less-than-perfect” photos, because they add so much to the photo story!

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    1. Thank you Sam, glad you enjoyed them. I usually cringe when I decide to leave in a sub-par image, but in this case they rounded out the transfer process – I always recommend in these cases you take about 5 steps back from the computer and slightly squint ha! Appreciate you dropping in and again, fantastic shots on your Egret outing.

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    1. Thank you Reed! – I know these are one of your favorite birds to photograph and I always enjoy reading about your encounters/captures as well. Appreciate you coming by.

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  3. Interesting evolution of behavior. I’ve witnessed a few steals and even a few drops with an eventual scavenger recovering (which come to think of it is just as much work as the first pick).

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    1. It was definitely a new experience for me. It may just be an isolated behavior due to the sheer number of Eagles hunting those waters (>30 by my quick count). Now that I have seen this at the Davenport lock and dam, it will be interesting to see how that compares to the Concord street gangs that tend to range in the 3 to 10 range. Trees are also closer down there so maybe this added protection isn’t necessary – already put a note to myself to do some field research on next year’s batch – maybe we can head up there together and compare notes.

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    1. Glad to hear Jet. Thanks again for introducing me to a brand new set of birds in your latest post. Will put those on my dream bird list if we ever get back to serious traveling. Appreciate you coming by.

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