Saturday, December 20, 2014

A two (or three) eagle morning

The cold front had worked its magic. The previous two days of heavy clouds, intermittent showers and increasing winds made it unwise for us to venture very far out into the wetlands next to our south Florida home. This morning we were out about 10 minutes before dawn. The sky was already blue, with the light reflecting white off the scattered cirrus clouds and a waning moon shining brightly.

 Moon 20141210

The temperature had dropped to the high 40's (~9 degrees C) and the northwest wind was barely perceptible. By Illinois standards it was shirt-sleeve weather. A light jacket sufficed for me, but Mary Lou was layered in fleece and had her hands in her jacket pockets as we walked the gravel road. She always says that she was born in December and hasn't thawed out yet!

A bit of background-- We have been watching a Bald Eagle nest near our home over the past eight breeding seasons. The pair of eagles had come to be called Pride and Joy. At the end of this October, Joy, the female disappeared. Pride seemed to miss her. He continued to add large quantities of sticks to their already huge nest. 

Bald Eagles generally mate for life. If a male loses his mate he searches far and wide to bring a new female into his territory. True to form, Pride suddenly showed up with a new companion, a female who was about four years old, just molting into her full adult (5th year) plumage. We did not know what became of Joy.

He presented her to the enthusiastic crowd of eagle-watchers on December 7. She is on the right and is quite a bit larger than Pride. Note the dark streaks in her white head and tail:

Bald Eagle male and female interacting 04-20141207

As usual, Mary Lou's faster pace moved her several yards ahead of me. At 6:55 AM, one minute before sunrise, a Bald Eagle suddenly flew low almost directly over her head. I quickly raised my camera and immediately learned that I had forgotten to turn it on! By the time it was operational the eagle had almost disappeared behind the trees. All but one of my series of shots missed the mark, but a single clipped-wing image provided evidence that it was an early fifth year bird, almost certainly Pride's new companion!

Bald Eagle new female 20141210

By the time we reached the Harbour Lake water conservation area we were still shrouded in shadows but the sun had reached the treetops across the lake.

Sun reaching trees 20141210

In the distance, I nearly ignored a large bird flying eastward, thinking it to be a heron. To verify its identity I used my camera as a spotting scope and saw that it was a Bald Eagle. I was able to snap only two shots before it disappeared behind a grove of trees. Using Google Earth, my best approximation of its range was 0.45 miles (730 meters), so the photo had poor resolution. Back home, the view on the computer screen revealed it to be an adult Bald Eagle with one leg dangling down.

This photo was taken at 07:19:57 and is cropped and sharpened:

Bald Eagle adult leg down 071957AM 20141210

This next photo is stamped two seconds later. With this one I modified the color temperature and increased the dynamic range as well as strengthened the sharpening in an effort to better visualize the eagle's legs. They shows that the right leg is hanging down:

Bald Eagle adult leg down 071959AM 20141210

I walked to the north, closer to where the eagle had disappeared, but only two minutes later (at 07:22:39 AM) the eagle once again flew into view, this time flying to the the WSW, at a range of approximately 0.19 mile (303 meters). The time stamp for this photo is 07:22:59 AM: 

Bald Eagle adult leg down 072259 AM 20141210

This is the sharpest of a burst of photos I took as the eagle flew away from my position (time stamp 07:23:01 heavily cropped):

Bald Eagle adult leg down 072301 AM 20141210

The eagle disappeared into the distance, flying WSW towards the Everglades. I wandered northward to the wet prairie, where I captured a delightful view of a Great Egret foraging in the slough:

Great Egret 20141210

A Great Blue Heron flew in... 

Great Blue Heron in flight 20141210

...and settled on a snag at the northern end of the prairie:

Great Blue Heron 20141210

While I was enjoying the herons an Osprey flew by and oddly seemed more intent on what was behind him than looking where he was headed:

Osprey looking back 20141210

I looked there as well and to my utmost surprise saw two large dark birds in a dead Melaleuca tree about  0.2 mile (320 meters) away. They had flown in while I was busy with the heron, and they were adult Bald Eagles! The one on the right was noticeably larger, a female:

Bald Eagles in tree 01-20141210

The eagles were at least 0.2 miles (320 meters) distant, and the shadows of the branches partially obscured their features. I was particularly interested in determining whether the female was the new companion of our resident male, but this photo shows the tail to be all white, that of an adult bird:

Bald Eagles in tree 02-20141210

Closely cropped views of the female's tail...

Bald Eagles in tree FEMALE 02-20141210

...and head... 

Bald Eagles in tree FEMALE 01-20141210

Bald Eagles in tree FEMALE 04-20141210

...revealed none of the distinctive dark marks shown by the younger female. Here is a photo of the new female's tail that I took this past week:

Bald Eagle new female tail detail 04-20141207

The original female (named "Joy") was last documented at the nest on October 30. On November 7th an apparent female roosted near the nest as darkness set in, but the image showed her right leg hanging down with the talons possibly distorted. Although the reason for the original female's disappearance is unknown, it is possible that she had suffered an injury. Earlier this year the nest observers noted that she often dangled one of her legs. I captured this image of her on January 11, 2014:

Bald Eagle 0857 adult2 roosting 20140111

So, the mystery deepens. Were my photos simply not sharp enough to determine the age of this female that was with the male today? Is Joy still alive and in the area of the nest? Is it possible that the new female drove her away?


  1. oh, goodness! the trauma of nature! i hope that is not joy and that she has not been replaced. hard to think about it. :(

    loved the shots of the egret and heron!

  2. Beautiful images of the birds, there are so many of them, I couldn't pick out which is favourite.

  3. Oh wow how amazing it must be to see these birds up close like that. I do hope whatever happened to Joy that she didn't meet a horrible fate. They are just glorious birds.

  4. I love the eagles. I've never seen them in the wild.

  5. Hi Kenneth Eagles all the way here on your post today except for the lovely Heron and its reflections. Lovely to see them. Have a great Sunday and a wonderful Christmas week ahead.

  6. This is so interesting! I wonder if the new female drove Joy away and she is trying to return to Pride. Such fascinating drama! So glad you had such a productive birding day. Loved all the shots1

  7. Oh, that is sad news about Joy. However, if you did capture her in photos, it means she still lives on. Such a mystery.

  8. Fantastic images but I really enjoyed seeing the flight shots.

  9. Beautiful images, happy christmas Kenneth.


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