19 December, 2012 Breakfast at Pony Pasture
This week I watched a bald eagle eat a catfish for breakfast at Pony Pasture.
It was a beautiful morning to start. They’re all nice in their way, but Tuesday was extra stunning:
The light was good and the air was nice (see above) and this heron was drying its wings when I got on the river:
There are enormous flocks of buffleheads on the water now. This is just a tiny slice of a flock:
But I was wandering along and looked across the river and saw an eagle hovering about ten feet above the water. It was an adult (you can tell by the coloring) but it wasn’t huge so I’m guessing it was a male. I was getting my camera out and as I did he plunged into the water. This was the first picture I took:
If you look closely in that picture you can see little splashes to the left and right. Just his head and shoulders are out of the water. I’m guessing now he had the fish in his talons.
I took this picture only six seconds later. So I guess he was coming out of the water in the first picture. See how the fish is sideways, head pointing to the right? This is all clear now, but I didn’t know precisely what I was seeing at the time. It was obviously a bald eagle – you can’t mistake them for anything – and I could see he was brawling with a good-sized fish. This was a very long way across the river:
I posted this picture on facebook. It’s a little blurry. But you can clearly see him holding the fish. Getting ready to eat I guess:
This is the final image I took. He’s finally got the catfish still enough to eat. I used to go catfishing a lot and they’re strong fish. He must have been giving that eagle fits. But eating fish is what eagles do, and he clearly had the procedure down:
I read up a little bit about bald eagles after I saw this. By “read up” I of course googled them and went first to wikipedia and learned a great deal there. But I also found a bald eagle specific site called “American Bald Eagle Information” at www.baldeagleinfo.com. It was informative and interesting. A few geeky facts. Bald eagles are “sexually dimorphic”, which means you can tell males from females by sight. Mockingbirds and crows are not sexually dimorphic. Eagles are only sexually dimorphic by size. Females are larger. There are a lot in Florida and a lot in Alaska and most places between.
There’s a rule (bear with me, I’m at my geekiest here) that I just learned on wikipedia called “Bergmann’s Rule.” Animals get bigger as they get farther from the equator. Bald eagles in Florida are much smaller than bald eagles in Alaska. Kind of cool. Also, since they’re fish eaters and need to be near water, there are lots of them on the coasts. Virginia has three times as many bald eagles as Texas, and twice as many as California. At 1,300 or so breeding pairs, Minnesota has the most in the lower 48. But – get this – Alaska has the world’s highest number at around 17,000. Wow. Florida has about 1,100 breeding pairs and Washington state has about 850. We have 485 here in Virginia, which is still a lot, especially for the lower 48.
More than anything I’m glad I had the experience. Of actually watching a bald eagle swoop down and snatch a live fish out of the river and eat it. I was definitely in the right place at the right time. And I’m definitely glad I had my camera. Fun experience. Fun for me, anyway, and probably for the eagle – not so much for the catfish.
Have a great Christmas, I may get another post up before then but we’ll see. In any event, have a great day and I look forward to posting again soon,
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PS I usually think through what I write in this post-post section, but this just occurred to me. It was really, really cool to be there for this and to see it. But – it was also no big deal – anybody can go to Pony Pasture any time. Furthermore, my camera is no big deal either. It’s better than a smart phone, and it’s better than a little tiny point-and-shoot. But it’s barely better – it’s not expensive, doesn’t have replaceable lenses, I wasn’t using a tripod, nothing like that. I was just in the right place at the right time with a low to mid-price camera. Mine is a Canon PowerShot SX30 IS.
I read once that nature is one of those things where you “must be present to win.” Or, as Woody Allen put it, “80% of success is showing up.” If you’re outside a lot and have a camera you’ll see stuff like this. But I do know I was extra lucky. I hope you enjoyed it!