Sunday, April 27, 2008

Fishing for Eagles

Several weeks ago the fresh water side of a small dam near by was stocked with young fish. I will apologize right now, I can not recall if these are real young salmon or a young trout. I drifted away from fishing many years ago as the costs were going up and the fisheries were going down. This entry is another reason why I may not fish again.

When the state delivers fish from the hatchery it is rather unceremonious. A large truck with a cylinder of liquid oxygen tank feeds a pipe bubbling in the tank keep to keep the water cold and well oxygenated brings them to their destiny. Both of these are critical just to insure survival to the release point. The truck backs up to the shore, a valve is opened and their world changes forever. Fish that up to this point that have only seen the inside of plastic or concrete tanks are flushed into an alien world filled with mud, plants and predators they could not imagine.

In the first few days after the release there is normally a die off of the fish suffering from the shock of the ordeal. In the hatchery they were fed high protein food that may have been medicated to keep them healthy enough to get to the release point. They are fat, they have to be, it may take a few days for them to figure out how to eat wild caught food. Those that survive the initial “dump” maybe dazed and wander along the surface as they did while in the safety of the hatchery. This is when the carnage begins.

Every fish eating predator “knows” when this happens. It happens every year. Before the hatcheries got involved this was normal timing for the young fish to make their way to the ocean. The only difference is the attrition rate suffered during this period of adjustment. One could say the trade off is acceptable because the fish are well fed and may be given a head start with medication making them stronger then wild stock at the same period development. The sad downside of this is that the hatchery fish are not born of the strongest parents. They are born of the fish caught in traps at the fish ladder and stripped of eggs and semen. Only the eggs and the young that can survive the conditions of the hatchery move on to release. This has to have some impact on genetic diversity by any measure it is not a good one. Do not get me wrong, what else can “they” do?

Back to the story. We have had a cold April. The water conditions seem good and there were a few warm days that did produce the hatchings of small insects that fly close to the surface of the water. The young fish jump out of the water to feed on them. This activity draws the predators closer.

This small water way is roughly 900 feet long and 150-200 feet wide. It is lined by thick mixed woods on both sides with a busy road and sewage treatment plant on the west side. The road crosses the fresh water side which creates a small pond no more than 20 feet deep before it spills into the tidal exchange that leads to the Puget Sound just under a mile away. Over several visits the greatest number of Bald Eagles I saw there at one time was eight, normal visits had three to six on any give day. Scores of Double Crested Cormorants, Great Blue Herons, Common Mergansers and Gulls worked the area over hourly.

Young eagles

Double Crested Cormorant Pair

Great Blue Heron

Common Merganser Pair


A friend told me he had seen a River Otter and I found a dead mink on the bridge.

This River Otter picture I took at a near by lake not here.

Cars and Mink do not play well together.

Plenty of pressure on the young fish. While I was there one day two young guys showed up with fishing poles. The next day the game warden posted several signs reminding anglers that this water way was closed until sometime in June.

While walking the edge of the water this day I came upon a dead fish.

There were five Eagles within 100 yards. I took a stick and pulled the fish within reach and found a good spot to sit and set my “trap”.
I threw the fish out as far as I could upstream and let it slowly drift past my selected location.

Was this illegal? Was this ethical? Was this just to good to be true? This was an opportunity that was hard to pass up!

Only six minutes passed from finding the fish to the first eagle passing twenty feet over my head from behind. Suddenly there were eagles all over the place jockeying for the approach vector that would get them to the fish first. I quickly took the lens extender off my Cannon S3IS and pick the one that I though would have the best chance at picking off the fish and started taking picture as fast as the SD card would take them.



And gone.

The fish was gone but the sky was filling up fast.

but not fast enough for fish.

The losers started screaming but it was too late, the victor was gone and everything was quiet in a few moments.

So if I was wrong, I was wrong. If I could do it again I would.

The fish released this month will be back in four years to start the cycle all over again. They will have to overcome Seals, Sea Lions, Killer whales, fishing fleets, Native and sport fishermen. Then there is the whole global warming thing that we as a world just can not seem to wrap our minds around. Some of these same eagles will be here to feed on those young fish four years from now along side their own offspring.

The big wheel keeps turning.

So the next time you hear someone bitch about the price of wild caught salmon or question the health benefits of farm raised fish, think about the greater web of life we tinker with when we impose our way on the world. Solutions are becoming harder to come by.

Take care.

Red Tailed Hawk Courtship Flight

I live on a hill that slopes down to the Southern Puget Sound. During the spring and fall Birds of Prey migrate along the shore line to avoid the open cold water. All though open water can be cross by the Eagles, most hawks, falcons and vultures use the updrafts and thermals about a half mile inland to coast along effortlessly. Cold water does not offer thermal updrafts the hawks, falcons and vultures need to supplement these dangerous trips. Eagles will fly to great heights over land then glide over the cold void. My yard is about 280 feet above sea level with an unobstructed view to the water. This puts a great number of hawks passing by just above the house or right out in front.

I have a clan of three crows that patrol this airspace. They have a distinct call that the designated lookout for the day issues when an intruder attempts to pass through. For the most part Osprey and vultures move through with out much if any harassment. The local Copper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks are always mobbed and driven away as fast as possible. The local Steller's Jays readily join in, they have the most to lose to these predators. A Crow is more that a match for a Sharpy and a Copper's yield quickly. Red Tailed Hawks are different. Red Tails will take an unwary immature Crow without hesitation. Crows have to work a little at pushing a big hawk out of their air space.

Yesterday only one Crow was holding down the fort when a pair of Red Tailed Hawks drifted in. I recognized the call and grabbed my camera. I am using a Cannon S3IS with a 1.5 converter lens. When I take bird pictures I try to never to go beyond the 12x optical zoom, I find the digital zoom poor for photos but usable as a tool to see out further without having to use binoculars. I have cropped these photos to show the interactions.

It is late April and this pair of Red Tails were doing slow loops on the updraft from the shore. A larger hawk was soaring in wide circles while a smaller hawk would flap to gain altitude and glide down approaching the larger hawk from the rear attempting to touch it on the back.

This is the courtship dance of the Red Tailed Hawk. The larger hawk is the female. The females of most Raptors are about one third larger than the males. As the male approaches the female can reject his advances by turning away rapidly to test his endurance or flip over on her back flashing her talons as a warning to move off. If after several passes or hours or even days of this, the female allows the male to actually come close enough to touch her, she has accepted his advance and they will go off to a tree and mate. They may nest locally or continue on their migration to a nesting area they have used in years prior.

I have read that some hawks and eagles mate for life. Some may, I sure that not all do. If you want to go Jane Hathaway on me, go ahead, this is only a recreational blog and I am an amateur naturalist. If you look hard enough I am sure I will give you something to question. I try to call them as I see them.

This particular courtship dance was taking place in the Crow's territory. Without back up or hesitation the Crow rose to the occasion to drive off both of the hawks.

I have always tried to see animal interactions for what they were. Survival. Crows and how they react to hawks and eagles are largely preemptive strikes to let the predator know they have lost the element to surprise and it is time to move on. Sometimes they are just out right unnecessary to make a point. Crows are more evolved than hawks and have an upper hand in thinking through their maneuvers like this. The hawks reacts just enough to avoid impact from the crows. They move on, wait for the crows to tire or think it has made it's point and quit. If the hawk is luck the crow will make a mistake and if the hawk is hungry, dinner has presented it's self.

Think of how bold you have to be to take on two predators both at more than twice your size in their element without help or a backup plan. How can you fly with stones like those? Move on guys....

The crow was very careful to keep it's distance. The hawks flight path was influenced slightly by the crows interference but for the most part the hawks just went about their way and the male made several passes over the female until she allowed him to touch her.

After this last successful touch by the male he pealed off sharply and the pair slowly worked their way further inland and higher then landed in a group of second growth Douglas Firs over a hundred feet tall. They just melted into the thick cover.

Today I heard the pair of hawks screaming out their vocal claim to this nesting area from the Doug Firs. I hope to see them soon.

In closing here is a photo from two weeks ago. I believe it to be the same crow and the female hawk. The crow was extremely agitated and made contact with the hawk at least three times before she left.

Take care.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Call me Dea.
I am in my early fifties and have been a bird watcher since I was seven years old. I started taking pictures of them in my late teens. Five years ago my bird watching and bird journaling dropped off when I quit my day job and started a small business and started remodeling a new house. My job and house became my hobbies. It consumed more of my life then I could have realized at the time.

When I worked for others I would bird watch at every opportunity. Driving to service calls took me out to new areas where every park, pond, swamp or green belt was a place to stop for lunch and try to add a new bird to my life list. I could use it to relax because I knew I was going to be paid. I will have to go back and check my records. I re-started a new life list in 1990 and it is around 450-460 for the lower forty-eight states and Hawaii.

I have not been to Alaska yet, I will be going this June. I have been privileged to visit forty-nine states, parts off Canada, several areas in Mexico, all three island in Grand Cayman. I was raised in Wisconsin and have lived in Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma and Panama. I have been here in the Southern Puget Sound region of Washington state for 22 years this time. I spent four years here in the late 1970's.

My starting a business at home cut deep in to seeing life through a windshield. I will never miss commuting 100+ miles a day to and from Seattle. Realizing that my income was dependent solely on me, my birding time suffered. There are dozens of birds in my yard so I did not really have to go far to see the locals but I could not see anything new.

Early in 2008 I turned back to birding and photographing nature to help deal with a personal tragedy. My business has grown enough where I still need to worry about the usual shit, but sometimes birding is more important. Or somethings are less important, either way I have found my way back to being outside. Somehow being cold and wet photographing Bald Eagles fish is better than being cold and wet.

Buy the way, I have no idea how to "BLOG" so you'll get what you get.