Hawking Homework

The Samish Flats provides a spectacular setting to view wintering raptors, including Bald Eagles.
The Samish Flats provides a spectacular setting to view wintering raptors, including Bald Eagles.

I know from experience that Bald Eagles are masters of the long chill. I once observed a nesting pair through the viewfinder of my camera, waiting at least three hours for something to happen. A lot happened, if you consider a change in gaze or slight settle on a branch “something.”

That’s why the Bald Eagle may not have been the best subject for my homework assignment from Bud Anderson’s Western Washington Hawk Watching class, which I have been taking down at the University of Puget Sound. Let me amend that: The Bald Eagle may not be the best subject for the way I usually like to tell stories these days, which is visually.

(NOTE: Clicking on an image will reveal a full-sized version in a separate browser window).

Anderson, who leads the non-profit Falcon Research Group and is one of the world’s leading experts on raptors, asked us to observe a subject over a prolonged period to learn about behavior, as well as about the focus required to conduct such observation. He says there are two types of birders — checklisters and observers. I never considered myself a “true” birder because I never have been consumed by keeping lists. As a journalist, I’m keen on observation and raptors have been longtime objects of fascination for me.

Short-Eared Owls fighting over territory.
Short-Eared Owls fighting over territory.
I spend a lot of time up Anderson’s way in Bow, Wash., watching raptors and sometimes breaking the watch to photograph them. Often, as in the photos here, I watch through my camera’s viewfinder and, though captivated by what I see, will remember to squeeze the shutter once and again.

I’ve spent a bunch of time in recent weeks watching the Short-Eareds at a spot known to birders as “West 90,” a 409-acre unit along Samish Island Road that is managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. I know there are usually four that hunt the area. One or two are out in the early morning, but all four usually are active after 3 p.m. or so. I know their favorite perches and the quadrants each has picked out. Sometimes the quadrants intersect, leading to scenes like that pictured.

Alas, Anderson’s class covers the 16 eagles, hawks and falcons found in Western Washington, and not the owls.

First, I tried this youngster, but it wasn’t having it.


So for my homework I spent a couple hours watching a juvenile Bald Eagle at West 90. Most people know the Bald Eagle by its distinctive white head and tail feathers, and often are confused by the juvies, which don’t start resembling the adults until they are about four years old. Because of Anderson’s class, I know this juvenile is about three years old because of the emerging yellow on its beak and the “Osprey stripe” around its eyes.

A juvenile Bald Eagle surveys the West 90 in Samish Flats.
A juvenile Bald Eagle surveys the West 90 parcel in Samish Flats.

This juvenile was easy to find because it was atop the tallest perch at West 90, a leaning snag in the southwest corner, on the dike along Padilla Bay. I was a mile away when I saw it, and the bird remained stationary as I hiked toward it. Compared to other birds of prey, Bald Eagles can be pretty tolerant of humans carrying cameras with long lenses. And indeed this one allowed me to approach pretty closely.

Look closely and you'll see a feather at the Eagle's feet.
Look closely and you’ll see a feather at the Eagle’s feet.

However, because of that tolerance, I can’t really report much. The juvenile stood and stood. And stood. And looked. For at least an hour straight.

At some point, the Eagle tensed up for liftoff. As I had been maintaining my spot for quite a while, I didn’t think I spooked it. I was right. It was thirsty, and flew into a pond below.

A juvenile Bald Eagle quenches its thirst.
Time for a swig.

At this point, I had moved to a few feet beyond the snag, almost certainly eliminating the juvenile’s return. After its drink, the huge bird flew off, to the north, maybe to Samish Island, or one of the two “Eagle trees” by Edison, where the Bald Eagles often congregate.

The juvenile takes off, revealing the coloring on the underside of its wings.
The juvenile takes off, revealing the coloring on the underside of its wings.

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