Fall 2010 Migration - When Eagles Attack *Viewer Discretion Strongly Advised* Squaw Creek NWR

No really. Trust me, I'm not talking gore. The lower images will make some folks upset. There, that should be warning enough. Heck I'd be one of them, full on. Sometimes I don't even understand myself.

King of the air. This guy is obviously not intimidated by myself! Imagine that look if you were actually smaller in size than him. It's like he's staring into your soul, making you cower in fear. You want to turn and run, but that isn't an option.

Above is one of the very very few *less cropped* shots I was able to get of what I set out to get with the fall migration. I rented the $11,000 Canon 800mm in an endeavor I see isn't as simple as bigger lens...at all. I want close up eagle action shots, be it against one another or against the unfortunate geese and ducks. I'm one of the biggest animal lovers in the world. I also want to get crazy shots very badly. It's an odd mix when one realizes something one morning when they see something they didn't expect, eagles slaughtering waterfowl. This happened a couple years ago now and since then I decided I wanted to capture that close up, without cropping, even if it's not something I'd even watch on the tv if it were on. Soon as I see a lion chasing something on some wildlife program, bam I turn the channel...essentially without fail.

Seeing that first encounter of this was quite hard to watch. Like I said back then in that account, I think anyway, was that this would seem much harder to take than say a hunter blasting one away. Obviously I guess. Seeing is so much worse when it is accompanied with hearing as well, as it was that first cold morning. That was the only time anything was close enough, and void of other geese enough, to clearly be hearing crap...death.

Anyway, I'm trying to explain the why here I guess. Why shoot this stuff. Especially why when the stuff even bugs me. First and foremost is it's something not commonly imaged, as far as I can tell. A shot of an eagle in a tree is only so interesting, especially when there's already so many of that. Even eagle flight is something extremely well covered. For whatever reason, close up eagles on eagles or eagles on waterfowl, doesn't look too common. And that makes it more interesting to a photographer. Also, the interesting happenings alone in such an environment make it interesting.

A second not foreseen aspect to why shoot this is the fact it makes one wonder about life that much more. Good things can do that well enough, sure. Bad things though are like a blunt perspective change when trying to rationalize alls existence and how it is here. Especially "effective" when one has a completely open mind on it all. I quote effective as it's blatantly clear I'll never understand, but wondering works well anyway.

It will get worse as the page progresses down, however I did at least leave out some details and an exchange. I wanted shots more than I wanted to tell of the struggle of waterfowl.

Even if the prey has it the worst, the predators don't have it easy either. Seems plenty of hell to go around. Just watch the eagle fighting for food for a while and imagine. Cold, hungry, fighting for food, and then do they even care when they have to kill something. Got me. Likely they are far to used to it to notice.

This would be one of the almost not cropped eagle action images from the 6 days in a row trips. That reminds me. This stuff and the geese shots I have, didn't come cheap. Last fall I tried with a 600mm rented for 21 days. That was around a grand with extenders, gimbal mount and shipping. Maybe gas too got to that total, I forget. I don't like failing at something I set out to do, so I again this fall took another whack at it with this 800mm, extenders and gimbal mount again, but for 6 days. I then tossed in a 7D later to make sure focusing was up to the task more than my T2i. I generally have zero need for autofocusing on what I normally shoot. It was just under $600 for the lens, extenders and mount for 6 days(had to next day air on the shipping). That's just not that bad for all that and that kind of lens for 6 days you are really going to use it. $250 for the 7D for a week from Rockbrook was kinda an annoying add to this I didn't want to do. Then I'm sure around $200 in gas, a full tank a trip and back 6 times. I again wound up dumping a grand on it. I'd also went a day before this with my 100-400. I see these fall things as my "vacation" type of deal I'll spend some money on. Probably started with the grand I blew on the Yellowstone trip 3 falls ago lol. I seem to "fail in the fall" while dropping some cash, thinking it will be an investment that will pay off anyway. I've been pretty wrong on that with these lol. Only thing that sells from them? Geese video to Japanese tv programs! I will forever find it humorous I haven't sold storm footage ONCE since 2003, but am on number 3 of the same geese footage. Those should at least break me even on my fall trips. So that is cool. But yeah nothing from stills of them.

Anyway, going down there 6 mornings in a row, leaving town around 5 a.m., isn't easy. Driving 2 hours to get there. It's made harder by noisy thumping neighbors. Doubt I've ever been as upset and as tired at the same time as I was that week. Still need to move! I'd wake up and just start walking, no lay there and think about how freaking drowsy one is. Just don't think, get up and move lol. Have to go to the refuge 2 hours away!

The most action with eagles starts right at day break, probably a bit before. They fill their bellies and sit in trees all day after that. Some days they don't even need to eat.

Timing a 6 day rental for this isn't overly easy. For starters they don't update their bird counts all that often and many times it shows on the site 2 days after the count itself. You need the lens the day before you go. Does no good the day it arrives as it is too late by then. You then have to guess on migration. I thought about 100 eagles were there when I went the day after Thanks Giving. Couple cold fronts and another one during a rental the next week if I made it then. I thought I'd be set for the max eagles and most importantly would be I'd know there'd be *some* there now and it didn't look like too cold of air would happen anytime soon and send them all south....a worst case scenario to be avoided! That was the most important part, don't rent it with no eagles there after they got sent south by arctic air. So it is always tricky guessing on that. Plus hell the weather too, like clouds. The numbers never got any crazier than what I'd first seen. edit: Of course I look after I made this page and see it doubled to 213. The count before was a whopping 8 days earlier after arctic air slammed in and one knew the geese would at least be gone, which they were. So yeah, might have made more sense to aim the rental for as the geese leave, as the eagles trail the group picking off weak left behind geese. But I at least know that last year there wasn't such a separation in geese departure and eagle departure. Get single digit highs on you and it pretty much rushes all birds out. Still wish I had known this time as I'd have least made some trips down with my 100-400.

Playing catch. Just the in air activity can be so amazingly full of ops. Just need them to happen closer! The strategy was to simply sit on the shore(you have no choice lol) and be near a tree area. That is where they end up after chasing one another, heading for the trees. That or yeah heading for a new spot on the ice to be left alone. I had a couple good ops come close that way but they passed on the wrong side of me! That is the other thing, gotta get them to cross so the sun is to your back, not so you follow them into the sun with an 800mm lens. Each time a super close op would happen that would be the case, just to the wrong side! It's extremely difficult to track them when they are getting close enough to fill most of a frame at that focal length. Half the time it is simply the damn tripod legs getting you. You are panning and when doing so you can't walk around and change your angle, you'll lose them out of your frame most times. I'd be leaning clear around waiting for them to get closer and as they are doing so I'm just needing to lean to far around the mount. Only for them to put themselves between me and the sun.

I wonder how many readers I would still have at this point and then how many I will have even 2 or so more images in. I wonder if I didn't shoot it if I'd still look on. Stills seem easier than wildlife video on National Geographic or something. But yeah, not a lot. On the above, I assume the goose was alive when that happened. I was actually just tracking the eagle at the time and didn't even see this coming. All the sudden I saw something happen in the frame and just started shooting. He carried it across that water to more ice. When the action picks up you also have to have your head on a swivel. Nothing more fun than watching the ice and see this eagle scoot right over your head from the backside. Too late by then.

Evan and Chris were here this day and there at the time(I now think it was a different one but similar distance anyway....one not included on this page). They can attest to just how far away this was. It's 800mm on a crop sensor(1.6x) and about 100% cropping. It was harder just getting these crops for on here than it was "seeing it" at the time. Just can't help but feel real bad for the goose. At the time you could only tell something was happening. Even through the lens it wasn't very big in the frame. And I was mounted and not even looking through the lens snapping them.

This would be a pretty incredible shot if it didn't need to be cropped in almost 100%. Even knowing how hard it would be to watch, it was my goal to get something like this closer to full frame. Pretty hard thing to accomplish. There is an area in there I know one could if they could get to it. As in "stay out of here signs" area.

Not as sharp or clear. The heat wave distortion off the ground is extreme with cold weather through an 800mm view. You'd have to live view focus and then watch live view and wait for the blurring heat wave action to let up, then snap whatever was happening. Also it was freaking breezy every day it seemed. Just about impossible to cable release a steady shot with 800mm on there in any breeze.

Another shot that would simply be crazy if it weren't a full crop. A simply crazy shot would be anything that promotes quite a bit of thinking and emotion. But yeah you have to be willing to think to begin with I guess lol. Wounded goose, facing his fears, cause he has no choice...."etc".

Perhaps his bad dream is simply over now. I mean you have a bad dream and it gets so bad, you wake up. I often wonder if somehow death isn't this way as well. I mean think of the terror he was facing and dealing with. Death becomes the relief. (And no it wasn't over this easily)

And it also obviously contributes to more life.

Seems to me a lot of the meaning of life might be struggle for whatever reason. Even those that have it easy have their problems. Then one can think of this all in a flipped sorta sense. If you were one of these creatures, would you rather mill about eating grain and whatnot, or fighting with other eagles all day long. Yeah yeah I'm sure geese have their eating problems as well. I can say though that watching the eagles fight and chase like they do, I might rather be a goose and take my chances. Even if my end could really really suck. I guess one has to look for the bright side first in that whole deal.

Not a lot of bright side going for this goose. You don't see this often at all, but on occasion you'll see an eagle straight out hauling ass after a goose in flight. I *think* this goose actually made it. The rest on here might have all made it too I believe. So just one goose death on the page, though not the only one witnessed. He flew straight for the flock, and in doing so his trailing eagle buddy scared them all up. I lost all sight of the goose once that happened. Pretty sure he escaped. He couldn't have been much further from the pile and still done so as that eagle was closing in.

This sequence is pretty amazing. Just look how that goose is standing...there are two geese there. You will very often see pairs of geese roaming, apparently connected with one another. Well look how his wings are and his posture. He seems to be shielding the other one and honking at the incoming eagle.

Looks like he's been paying for his defense of the wounded goose near him.

The eagle takes another shot and look, the goose is defending yet again.

Works again.

The eagles are often persistent and will try over and over. This was at least the 3rd try I saw.

Check him out this time! They will really put up a fight, because they have no choice. But it seemed he was indeed protecting the other one and I wonder if that is how he himself ended up so bloodied. I mean was he straight up attacked and got that and was just wounded as well, or did he get it from the start trying to defend the other hurt one. I doubt they ever made it many more days, but they made it this day to see another day.

That most recent count was telling too. 213 eagles and 9 snow geese left. Granted there were 2,500 Mallards still around. It just seems certain the 9 snow geese spent their last days there at Squaw Creek. I've seen a sick and wounded snow goose slowly die there before. It truly makes seeing an eagle kill them seem a lot less horrible.

Another pair. The above pair, 2nd image up, were on the 26th of November, this image above now is the 4th of December. Hell I wonder if it is the same pair. Probably not. The 2nd of the pair here is being held under water. It could be that the eagle is just holding it from swimming down under water and away, or it tries to drown it. Sometimes it really looks like they just sit on them and hold them there. But it is probably them just not letting go as it sounds like that is what they do. Evidently they'll do that with big fish and swim it to the shore. I thought I read somewhere their instinct is to not let go and a huge fish can drown the eagle. But maybe that wasn't right.

Trying again. It's at or before daybreak and it is cloudy and breezy too. Such horrible conditions to try and shoot 800mm in! Using a camera with better higher ISO performance would help. The T2i/7D just aren't great aob 400ISO on flat scenes. Especially when you are trying to 100% crop from them! lol

You'd think this goose had no chance at this point.

He's again standing on him.

Tries to leave with him but loses him yet again.

Try and try again. That would be a nightmare of a view, again an eagle flying in, talons out in front of him heading for your head.

Notice he picks the same one each time.

Here is one more of the shots I think would have been simply crazy if it were not an almost 100% crop! Got him by the wing tugging him backwards. You can tell the other one is honking and carrying on as this happens.

Score another one for the geese! I believe these two survived to see another day as well. It's not all bad, as this does happen more often than successful attacks.

Muskrat time. Watch the next two GIFs, it's rather comical. The muskrat was actually jumping up at the eagle attempting to fight back, because it too had no choice.

It was simply amazing how persistent they were on this muskrat. Watch the first few frames and what the eagle is doing with his foot. I was like, he's stomping at the ice! He must have been able to see the muskrat that kept going under, through some thinner ice or something. He ends up finding him in a small opening, grabs him and won't let go. He leans forward into the wind and just goes south, leaning like a hurricane chaser in the wind...not letting go of that muskrat! Just watch how far he goes like that. After that he flies up, drops the muskrat, another eagle grabs him again and flies off, dropping him in the water. Then for about 20 minutes eagles would take turns hovering over the water where they'd last seen him go under. Then they'd tire, land, and another eagle would take off and hover again. Relentless. THEN he walks up on the ice, an eagle lands by him and they stare at each other for the rest of the day!

I'm not kidding when I say they stare at each other the rest of the day lol. I watched for at least 30 minutes before I got bored with it. I drive around the place and end up back over there in the afternoon and guess what? Same freaking scene, eagle standing right by the muskrat.

Here is a gif animation from one of the earlier stills on here.

A note on the image quality of these. They suck! lol But there's only so much one can do. It was not helping when it would be cloudy and this stuff would happen at or before daybreak too. Then add in wind and an 800mm view. And distance. Between the heat wave action of the air and wind, even with the finest of glass on your camera you are limited. And the T2i and 7D both in my eyes are pretty big let downs in the noise department. With that it is all in what you shoot. I do not like shooting anything without much detail with my T2i on higher ISOs. And the 7D appeared identical in this department as it should. Blue sky, fog, grey low contrast situations on these eagles, even 100 ISO will show some healthy noise. 400 and up is annoying imo. Having the 5D II for a while probably ruined me I guess and I even found some fault with that in the noise department. Guess I just wish all cameras now could do at 100 ISO what the 5D II was doing at 50 ISO. Pretty freaking silky smooth. And even there if you look you can see some bumps. You shoot a blue sky, by now we shouldn't be seeing noise at 100 ISO! On these latest ones, hell it's a fair bit of noise in that situation. Oh well. Reason enough for me to work back to owning a 5D II again lol. And again, remember I'm probably being picky and I'm not talking about everyday shots that are full of detail that you won't notice noise anyway. Seems all I shoot is the complete opposite and eager to display noise. But yeah this is all besides the point here as noise isn't to blame, all those other factors are. Namely distance....uggg.

I have halfway come to the conclusion big lenses like an 800mm F5.6 aren't going to do much for eagle action photography....unless you are closer! Closer is just several times more important. It's an odd deal. I swear people there would just think I could get any crazy shot cause I had that lens with. Just not the case. If something is tiny in a 400mm frame, it's small to tiny in a 800mm frame. Converters on an 800mm is utterly pointless. If you can't get it at 800mm screw it. Get/shoot something else.

The 800mm however was simply amazing on closer subjects like the geese. And that is where I should have been focusing more effort. Though I'm glad I did get what I got of that with it. Just opens up insane possibilities of images in flight and whatnot. This especially true if you are near a multi-hundred thousand pile of geese where they will frequently be circling down from above. That account is next and will probably be quite long. It will for sure be a more "chipper" account. No death. Happy geese.