Thursday, August 29, 2013

Photo Essay - Skinner Butte Eagles (2013)

The first time I heard about the Bald Eagle nest at Skinner Butte (Eugene, OR) was from a colleague at work, who had mentioned that he had taken his kids to see it. I was immediately inquisitive, since I knew I'd want to get some pictures of the nest. Based on his explanation of its location, I felt I had a reasonable chance of finding it on my own, so I decided to head there a few days later. What I didn’t know at the time, was that I would spend countless hours over the next few months to document an eaglet, from a baby to a fledgling, and I also didn’t expect to form such a connection to these amazing birds over that period of time.

April 29th, 2013
Atop Skinner’s Butte and armed with my camera, trusty 70-300mm lens, and a tripod, I left the top parking lot and headed along the paved trail, which encircles the top of the butte. I must have looked lost, because I was soon approached by another gentlemen with a camera who asked if I was looking for the eagles. After confirming his assumption, he told me that I probably wouldn’t find it on my own, and that it wasn’t very visible from the paved trail, due to the thick canopy of trees. He then offered to show me the best vista for viewing the eagles, which I graciously accepted. From the top, and near the edge of the parking lot, he led me down a gravel path that headed west, along the north face of the butte, until we reached an intersection with an unsanctioned trail that had been intentionally blocked with fallen tree parts and pieces. From here he pointed directly north to the furthest tree in the distance, unveiling the mighty nest and its occupants. As I set up my camera, he gave me a brief history of the nest (which I won’t get into), before bidding me farewell and headed back from where we had come.

It wasn’t until I had the camera set up and lens zoomed to 300mm on the nest that I noticed the tiny eaglet, covered completely in greyish-white down -- I would find out later that it was around three weeks of age. Accompanied by both its parents, I was immediately drawn to the grandeur of these amazing birds! As I sat there for an hour or more, I watched as the parents took turns leaving the nest, presumably to find food, while the other stayed and looked over the fragile chick. Although I had originally come hoping to get some great photos, I actually spent most of my time just watching their activities, but of course I did walk away with a couple of shots that I was happy with. As the sun dropped lower into the sky, the nest became too dark to really watch or photograph, so I soon packed up my stuff and headed back to the car. The following day I processed the photos and posted them on a photography forum, receiving many positive responses and jealousy over the convenient viewing platform. One respondent mentioned that I should do a photo essay of the eaglet’s growth, which was a great idea, how come I hadn’t thought of that?! With that, my plan was to head there once a week, as soon as I had gotten off of work. Based on the setting sun, this would give me an hour or two with good lighting, especially during the golden hour, just before the sun dropped below the horizon.



Protecting its young
 
Incoming!

Changing of the guard

May 6th, 2013
The following week I returned to the nest, this time with more of a purpose, to start documenting the growth of the young eaglet. Since I now knew where the nest was, it didn’t take me long to get there and set up. As I arrived, I could only see one of the parents and the eaglet in the nest, so I figured the other adult was out running errands. Soon enough it returned to the nest, and just as before, the parents took turns watching their baby while the other went out for supplies, sometimes a nice fish and other times a stick or two to add to the nest. Although it had only been a week, the eaglet was noticeably larger, and even got up a couple times to stretch its fluffy down wings. Once again, I stayed there until it got too dark to shoot and then headed off.


Inspection

Enter, stage right

Full house

Lookout post

May 13th, 2013
As I got to the nest on my third visit, I was a bit surprised to see only the baby in the nest – since I wasn’t too knowledgeable about Bald Eagles (or any birds for that matter), I wasn’t sure if it was a bad sign. All alone, the eaglet got up a few times, stretching its wings and even flapping them around a bit. Once again it was bigger than the last time. Although still covered in down, its feathers at the edges of the wings had become more pronounced. Before long, one of the parents swooped into the nest, relieving my angst. Soon after, it took off again, moments before the other parent came in. Apparently, they were becoming less concerned about the eaglet being preyed on by larger predators.


Evening stretches

"Look, Ma"

Home supplies

Touchdown

As I visited the site over the following weeks, the eaglet continued its growth – becoming visibly stronger and much more active. Its down was being replaced with true feathers, and it became eager to test them out, even getting a few inches off the ground as it flapped its wings feverishly. It had also gained quite an appetite, and it cried for its parents as they were gone collecting food. The adult birds were starting to spend less and less time at the nest, and I soon became familiar with their calls and could find them from time to time hanging out in one of the surrounding trees.


Dive-bomber
(5/19/2013)

"Is this food?"
(5/19/2013)

"Okay, that's definitely food!"
(5/19/2013)

Flaring
(5/19/2013)

Feeding time
(5/19/2013)

(5/19/2013)

Testing its wings
(5/31/2013)

More food
(5/31/2013)

The Eaglet, trying to take down a fish in one bite
(5/31/2013)

Getting bigger
(5/31/2013)

By my sixth visit to the nest, the eaglet was as large, if not larger than its parents, which had me thinking that it was a female, which are known for being larger than their male counterparts. It was at this point that I knew it was only a matter of time before it decided to take its first flight. Although I was really excited to see it take the leap of faith, I was a bit torn, since 40% do not survive the event. With having spent many hours observing and documenting the eaglet, I felt a connection to it, and was certainly pulling for its survival. Over the next couple of weeks, the baby become much more aggressive about learning to get off the ground, shaking the whole tree as it flapped its large wings.

 
Walkin' about
(6/8/2013)

More fish!
(6/8/2013)

"Um, we may be feeding you too much..."
(6/8/2013)
 
"Give me food!"
(6/19/2013)

Practice jumps
(6/19/2013)

(6/19/2013)

(6/19/2013)

Gettin' cramped
(6/19/2013)

Showing off
(6/19/2013)


(6/21/2013)

(6/21/2013)

The whole family
(6/21/2013)

(6/27/2013)


When I reached the lookout during the last week in June, it had happened, the eaglet had left the nest. What I didn’t know at that moment, was whether or not it had survived. Nervously, I sat down in my usual spot and waited, barely taking my eyes away from the area of the nest. After an hour had gone by with no sight or sound, I started to lose a bit of faith… Then I heard the familiar sound of the baby crying out for its parents, and soon after that, it awkwardly flew by, in the distance. That evening I didn’t actually get to see it return to the nest, but I was satisfied just knowing that it had passed the test, and one of the most difficult hurdles of its life.

Over the next couple of weeks, I visited the nesting site multiple times, photographing the fledgling as it took its practice flights, never straying too far from the nest. Its parents also hung around, bringing food and playing chase from tree to tree with their oversized baby. My last two times at Skinner’s I didn’t actually see the eaglet in the nest, but heard its cries from nearby trees and watched it buzz around a bit. I didn’t actually witness it gather its own meal, but since I stopped seeing and hearing the parents, I assume it passed that test as well.


First documented flight!
(7/5/2013)

Practice flights
(7/7/2013)

(7/7/2013)

(7/7/2013)

Food, but no baby...
(7/7/2013)

(7/7/2013)

"Here I come!"
(7/7/2013)

"Out of my way!"
(7/7/2013)

(7/8/2013)

(7/8/2013)

(7/8/2013)

and then there was one...
(7/16/2013)

Until the next breeding season….

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