Bald Eagles Bring in the New Year!
I woke up early on New Year’s Eve and decided to take a road trip to Clarksville, Missouri to check on the eagle situation. I was up there on a work trip a few weeks ago and I only saw two eagles but we’ve had a lot of cold weather since then so I was optimistic. Upon arrival I was happy to see 75 to 100 eagles making passes along the Mississippi River in search of their favorite meal—gizzard shad.
It was a bitterly-cold morning so my first task was to don my super-thick fleece overalls, pac boots and duck hunting coat. Next I added a fleece neck gaiter, stocking cap and wool gloves. My camera body is pretty huge and all of the controls are glove-friendly so I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about cold hands for the rest of the day.
The first thing I noticed was that the wind was wrong, out of the southeast, so the eagles would be touching down on the water with their tails to my camera lens. The best time to shoot from river’s edge at Clarksville is when the wind is out of the west because the big birds flare and hit the water head on, face to face with my lens.
The second problem was that the eagles were touching down just east of the river’s centerline so it would be a long reach for a shot. I knew my best bet would be to use the 2x converter with my 500mm lens for a total focal length of 1000 millimeters. This put me at a fully-open aperture of f8 with a sluggish auto-focus but nobody ever said it was easy to get a good eagle shot on the Mississippi River.
When I finally began my stand, all bundled up behind my tripod, I felt downright cozy there at river’s edge. My only wish was for a hot cup of coffee but I quickly forgot about my desire for caffeine when a juvenile eagle (see featured image) drifted over to my side of the river and snatched a shad from the water. It was the first of several serendipitous moments when an eagle happened my way and I happened to be ready. I was pleased at how the morning light brought out the young bird’s mottled plumage and highlighted its giant, yellow talons. As a fisheries biologist, I was also happy to capture an image of the doomed gizzard shad.
I stayed at the site all morning and into the afternoon and by 1:00 p.m. I was getting a little hungry. I didn’t want to leave because I was still waiting for the next, better image so I rooted around in my shoulder bag and found a six-month old granola bar. It’s amazing how good those little bars taste when you are really hungry. After the granola bar I started thinking about how awesome it would be if somebody walked up to me with a hot cup of coffee from Quick Trip and said, “Sir, you looked like you could use a cup of coffee so I brought you one.” It never happened!
I did have several visitors throughout the morning though but none stayed for more than an hour due to the cold wind. The Clarksville landing is one of those rare places where I can photograph and socialize at the same time, always watching for the next great eagle shot out of the corner of my eye.
By 2:00 p.m. I was ready to pack it up because nature was calling and bathrooms aren’t a feature of the eagle watching experience at Clarksville. I suppose I had consumed too many virtual coffees and it caught up with me. But just before I headed toward the truck a mature bald eagle grabbed a shad from mid-river and started flying right toward me.
I watched it through my lens and thought, “Dad burn, that big boy is going to fly right to me!”
As you can see from the second and third images, the regal eagle did not disappoint. What a way to start the New Year!
Speaking of the New Year, you can read my story about a yellow-bellied sapsucker in the January, 2014 issue of “Missouri Conservationist” here.
Happy New Year,
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Coming Soon: A gorgeous male pileated woodpecker from Maramec Springs and a female kestrel from Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary.