October 24, 2020 ~ I had finished a fine day at Anahuac, and was heading north on the National Wildlife Refuge entrance road from Shoveler Pond to Whites Ranch Road. I had been watching for raptors all day, so my eye was primed to catch a dark shape off to my right. I jumped out of the car to hear a cacophony of screeches, honks and flapping wings. The air was a tornado of flying birds.
A very large dark bird was circling over the flooded fields, intentionally chasing the wading birds and ducks up from the surface. Here they are circling away from him to my left, and then to the right in front of me to avoid him. When the glancing “golden hour” sunlight lit his head and tail, it was clear: this was a mature Bald Eagle.
The Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, ranges throughout most of Canada and the US. Here on the upper Texas Gulf Coast, we are lucky to have them year-round. Individuals have been known to forage over distances of more than 100 miles in a day, so getting to see one is a real treat. They take four years to reach adulthood, and their plumage changes enough that All About Birds shows images identified as one-year birds, two-year birds, and so forth. The five-year bird has the characteristic pure white head, neck and tail.
I was parked on the side of the North-South road at the red “X”, looking east toward the distant farm house. The flocks were in the vicinity of the red oval, and the eagle flew above them. Technically, this area is not part of the Anahuac NWR, but it is no longer farmed, and has become a gathering spot for birds.
The eagle sailed in slow loops, skimming down closer to the surface above the grounded birds, then rising, turning and coming back around for another run. He never extended his legs for grappling, and never folded his wings to stoop in dive-bomber mode.
He craned his head and neck to one side and then the other, clearly inspecting the water below for something. Eagles eat primarily fish, but will also take a wide variety of birds, small mammals and reptiles. Perhaps by flushing the birds off the water, he was getting a better view of any fish darting below the surface.
Perhaps flushing the flocks of birds would startle a small mammal into darting along the narrow elevated strips of land between the flooded fields.
The Bald Eagle weighs 11 to 13 pounds (5 to 6 kilograms), and has a wingspan of almost 7 feet (2 meters). He loomed over the smaller birds, but seemed completely disinterested in the birds flying all around him, including these Green-winged Teals, Anas crecca, with emerald green secondaries. The other birds visible in the top photo include the Blue-winged Teal, Spatula discors (powder blue mid-wing with green secondaries), the female Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos (royal blue secondaries), and for something completely different, the non-breeding adult Long-billed Dowitcher, Limnodromus scolopaceus (pale tummy, pointed wings and long bills).
He finally looped away to the west, and the birds settled back into the water. I had watched him for just under two minutes, and taken around 200 photos.
In a matter of seconds, the flocks were busy preening, nibbling, snoozing or chatting among themselves, seemingly unbothered by their visitor. The ponds were once again a quiet and peaceful place.
I was so excited during the whole event that it was a challenge to remember my camera techniques. I remembered to keep the shutter speed high for all the action, raising from 1/2500 to 1/3200 when the light permitted the higher speed. Most of the time, I remembered to press the camera firmly to my forehead to stabilize my shots, and I’ve learned to lean the side of my knee against the car bumper improving stability and balance. However, though my f/8 aperture was good for the size of the eagle himself, it was not sufficient for the flocks of birds; I should have considered f/11 or even f/16 to avoid blurring the ducks and dowitchers.
I learn something every time I go out, and I consider myself lucky that my “student driving” is so much fun!