Monday, September 2, 2013

Window of Opportunity

  I took this photo five years ago in the first week of June. 
If you could only have seen the thirty seconds that come before it.  Your breath would have been taken as mine was.   

To tell you the truth it was what rekindled my long burning desire to photograph wildlife. That's what I wanted to capture, the action, the drama and the story.  I see it all of the time but not everyone goes where I do when I do.  Not everyone can or would.

As I studied the photo afterward I started to plan on how I was going to get a better one.  (The monkey and his plans.)   At first it looks fairly straight forward,  go sit there a take another picture go home. As time passed I realized there were some very specific circumstances that had lead to this moment. Getting what I have was just plan lucky and luck when photographing wildlife only happens when you can control everything but what is happening.   

Were to begin.  The cast of players

The Geese. 

Just hours old the young geese take to the cold brackish waters of the estuary.

These are Lesser Canada Geese. The most noteworthy attribute of these birds is their ability to adapt. Over the past century with the decline of so many bird species these birds are doing better now then when the settlers first came to the shores of he Salish Sea. You are most familiar with them as the geese that leave the big ugly droppings in parks and golf courses.  These are not "park rats". These birds are making there way in the wild margin at the edge of our world. 

Small bits of greenery and gravel make up the goslings first meal.  They retain a fat reserve from their yolk when they were in the egg.  If the weather is bad when they hatch they can survive a few days without eating.  

The adults start nesting as early as late February and the young hatch from late April through early July.  They nest in hidden locations on the ground along the fresh and brackish waters of the creek above and below the local dam.  There is a strategy at work here. If spring weather patterns that turn bad it could wipeout a whole year worth of goslings.    The first nests to hatch out normally have one to four goslings. A few weeks in to the season it is common to see larger family groups with as many as twelve.  About this time another seemingly intelligent plan plays out. Groups of goslings band together under the care of a few pairs of adults. These adults Shepard the goslings to the freshwater side of the damn in the evening and out to the brackish mud flats in the morning.   Again, isn't that nice?  Hold that thought. 

Nature has a funny little trick it plays here. Just after the gosling hatch and start to band together  the adult birds begin to molt. They lose all of their flight feathers in a very short period of time. If confronted with danger they can not fly off.  They are more irritable and aggressive during this time but tend to look ahead and avoid danger by gently guiding the goslings around situations.  

Feathers litter the shore line where the adults preen.  At first thought this is an awesome adaptation to keep the adults on the water with their young and protect them.  Hold that thought. We will come back to it. 

A mixed age group is herded around the dam and into the estuary.  Two months have passed.  The adorable fuzz balls now look like a clumsy, bottom heavy pack of a duckbill dinosaurs just moments before the great meteor strikes the earth at the end of the Jurassic Period. 

The age difference between the young birds may only be days but you can see how dramatic the difference is.

The Eagles

The Eagles have prime nesting site. Starting in December of each year they spruce up the nest and reestablish their territory.  To their West are the Southern reaches of the Salish Sea while the South and East sides are a protected by small canyons and an estuary where the creek drains to the sea. To the North is a security fence limiting public access to their little peninsula. Beyond the fence is a County Park that protects the canyon that cradles the creek from an urban lake upstream also held back by a small dam . 

Upon returning to the nest in mid winter the female announces to all they are back.  This pair of eagles have a two eaglets each year for the past five years that I have recorded. The Golden Bald Eagle in my last blog may very well have been raised in this nest.

From May to September the eaglets are voracious.  Both parents bring food to the nest from dawn to dusk.  Anything they can pick up they will bring home, the male can not lift loads as large as the female can. Fish are obviously the eagles main food but the also feed on ducks, Geese, mammals up to the size of an opossum.  Larger fish and game is carried in pieces to the nest in their crops or talons.

 They are white at first but are not often seen when they are low in the nest.  Around the end of May the eaglets begin to move up and out of the bowl of the nest.   Mid June and they venture out of the nest  hopping from branch to branch stretching their new wings.   

They sport their new feathers and begin to move around on the branches.  In July and August they begin flight training and are gone in September.  The adults wander off for a vacation and return in December to start all over.

The Solar Dance.

June sunset over the Olympic Mountains.

Solar energy bathes the earths surface in it's warmth while the gentle magnetic tug pulls and pushes the tides and churns the core.  

Super Moon  June 2013

The Salish Sea follows the rhythm of the orbits with the winter solstice hosting the highest tides and the summer solstice the lowest.

 Mt Rainer from the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge

When the tide pulls the water from the shore it exposing thousands of square miles of mud that had not been exposed in months. But like most things good or bad it doesn't stay that way for long. The low tide only lasts for a few hours twice each twenty four hour period. One of those tides is usually at night and is of no use to the day dwellers.   

So now all of the players are in place...except for one.  The loose nut behind the camera. In the past five years I had gradually upgraded my equipment.  The original photo was taken with a low mega-pixel  point and shoot with an external lens extender.  It had great optical zoom but was slow to react when when you wanted to capture real action.  But equipment alone doesn't get a picture.  Everything needs to line up.   I can not control the weather. I can not use the night time tide.  I can not make the geese get into position and even if I got all of these plus the sun and moon nothing says the Eagles would want to do their part. All I can do is control the things I can and anticipate the things I can not and hope for the best.

It is the first week of June. Present.

Hundreds of adult and fully fledged Lesser Canada Geese sitting on a barren mudflat pierce by a ribbon of shallow fresh water. Two adult geese have escorted a group of mixed age goslings around the dam and down stream to the freshest eel grass in the deepest part of the stream.  This choice spot can only be reached at the lowest of the tides and just happens to lay at the base of the eagles aerie.  

The tallest tree just right of center holds the eagles nest.  Look to the first open spot going down from the top. The tree to the left of the same height is the roost of the Male Eagle.  Look closely, he is sitting there now.  The stream in the foreground is flowing toward the eagles and is gently carrying our flock of geese closer to danger.

Everything is in place, Eagles. Geese. Low tide. Weather.  Light.  Equipment,  Coffee.  Here I am with it all laid out before me.  I could see the Male Eagle and the geese and they could see me as well as each other. 

 Something was missing.  

The female Eagle was no where to been seen.  The trap was set!   She was there hiding in the canopy somewhere and she was watching all of us.  I scanned the canopy on the far side of the creek and could not see her.   For their size and striking white head and tail  Bald Eagles can just disappear when sitting in the trees.  Their dark bodies blend in to the shadows and the bright white feathers meld into the mosaic of light and dark pattern agains the background sky.   A soda can sized white spot in the canopy does not look like an eagle with a six foot wing span.

I watched for a few minutes as the goslings moved in to the "best" ambush spot. Being a primate my attention span was not as long as the eagle's. Anything shiny or distracting is all I need to lose track of time and and drop my guard.  A few crows moved off the mud flat and landed in the trees near where I was standing.   I slowly moved out of sight of the "trap" and became distracted by a pair of grooming crows.  They sounded a half hearted alarm at my approach but settled into a detailed feather rearranging.   I started to fiddle with the camera settings to compensate for darkness of the crows and then it happened.

It was an alert call from upstream, the King Fisher was first then a simultaneous chorus of crows, mallards, great blue herons and lastly the geese sounded the alarm.  Fast and low the female eagle was rocketing along the water's course headed straight to the goslings. I've seen this before in fact you have seen it also if you have read a past blog of mine, "Speed is your only friend".

Just feet off the water the eagle was counting on all of the other birds taking flight to cover it's attack run.  I started  moving back to my first viewing point.  I missed this first strike. I caught part of the second and this is the third pass at the gosling that had been singled out.

As I had walked out of the sight toward the crows the eagle had been watching, I imagine she was hesitate to hunt while I was there out in the open. 

 She saw that the goslings were feeding on the Eel grass and the adults were preening on the bank.  After the first two passes all of the other gosling were no were to be seen.

This was the fifth pass, the forth I watched forgetting to raise the camera.

On each attack run the gosling would dive under water to evade the eagle.  Lucky break for the gosling.  Just a few yards either direction the water would have been too shallow to protect the it.

The eagle had a well practiced plan.  By relentlessly circling back and and forcing the gosling to dive repeatedly the hapless gosling tires quickly.  Pure adrenaline can only over power cold water and oxygen deprivation for so long.  With the Eagle attacking the instant they breach the surface they have little time to catch their breath let along figure out which way to go.

This was the last pass at the gosling.  I do not know if the eagle was tired or just gave up with the element of surprise gone. She pulled up early and let the gosling go.  

Like a cork the gosling popped to the surface. After five harrowing escapes in less then a minute the little guy was spent.   Squawking franticly it spotted the adults on the shore and rocketed toward them.

It was over as the eagle's wing beats slowed and she rose up from the chaos and confusion to a low perch that over looked the scene below her nest.

Sitting high in the top left corner the female eagle looks down on the regrouped flotilla of goslings in the lower right corner.   The male and the young eagles were still sitting high above on their perches looking down on the failed hunt.  The male screamed out his disappointment with the females shortcomings and she quickly replied with her own screaming more or less telling him to do it himself.
They both sat in their respective trees screaming at each other for at least fifteen minutes as the flotilla moved downstream and out of the trap.

I did not get another chance to see this again this year, I am sure the eagle did. 
 I have no confirmation on whether or not she have any luck.  

So back up toward the beginning of this blog I pointed out a couple things about the geese.  The adults pushed the young in to combined flocks while they themselves were molting.  The goslings offer an easier target for the eagles while the adults are stuck sitting next to them.  By combining their goslings the adults reduce the odds that any of their young would fall victim to predators.

The adults don't have to defend themselves from the eagles when the goslings are served up in herds.

So this was a blog about failure. 
Mine.  But a good kind of failure. Not every hunt is successful. 
 The geese and the eagles will return next year.  The Sun and Moon and Earth will continue to do their thing.  My task is simple.  Wait a whole year for the big wheel to turn and bring us all back to the same spot.

Sounds easy.  Let you know how that turns out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great pictures and interesting notes. I have a wanna-be birder great grandson and he and I are going to the Nisqually when they come visit for Christmas. The Nisqually always comes thru for us.