Sunday, June 17, 2018

Golden Eagles Part 6: Epilogue

Dale Matson

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“When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.” (Psalm 94:19)
         The past year has been personally difficult for me. The problems are mostly age-related illnesses that are chronic. They create physical discomfort, a loss of confidence and self-efficacy, uncertainty about the future and a general malaise. This is not a situation unique to me but common to folks in the last stage of life.
         But God has offered consolations. The 2017-2018 season offered the most opportunities to view and photograph eagles in general and Golden Eagles in Particular. Last year at this time, I had given up trying to get any photos of Goldens. I had done considerable hiking to this end with no good result not even sightings.
         This year, I had a new model camera and telephoto lens that were not even yet available last year. This year, I had new leads on possible locations to look. My own photography skills improved also.
         After discovering the Golden Eagle nest, I returned 24 times over the span of 4.5 months. It was a two-mile round-trip hike with about 800’ of gain overall. Thus, this adventure involved nearly 50 miles of hiking with 20,000’ of climbing. I also had a mile round trip on six occasions on the other side of the lake for distant photos. I wore a heart rate monitor and my cardiologist would not have been pleased had he known how far above his recommended maximum my heart rate went.
         I was of necessity secretive about the nest location for I did not want hordes of folks heading up there which may have resulted in the adults abandoning the nest. Two bald eagle nests at Millerton Lake were abandoned this year for unknown reasons. These three nests formed a triangle with each leg of the triangle about a mile in length. I am sure the eagles could keep eyes on each other. Additionally, once the nest had eggs, I no longer saw crows, hawks, or buzzards in the area. I believe the Goldens enforced a "no fly zone" with extreme prejudice. When the eagles fledged it was as if the restricted air space had been lifted and I again saw crows, hawks and buzzards.
         The adults only came to the nest once while I was at the view site and I tried to keep my visits short and infrequent knowing that I might be disturbing the feeding and care of the chicks while there.
         I can say that I prayed often for the chicks in general and the hawk in particular. One cannot observe wildlife for any period of time without being drawn into their story and the attendant drama. Just as the hawk was an adopted member, I became ‘extended family’. While the adults were not pleased, the chicks did not seem to be bothered, only curious.
          With eagles, it is impossible to observe them without them seeing you also. Even on the other side of Millerton Lake, I could see them looking at me in my Camo, as I viewed them through my telephoto lens or binoculars.
         This was quite a process viewing these tiny snow-white chicks develop into huge dark raptors. During this time, I collected over 50 Gigs of photographs and video. They became the second largest wildlife quest I have ever engaged in. I put together a YouTube video called “Golden Eagles Raise A Hawk”.
Photographing and filming the endangered Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep was an even bigger project which became another consolation from God. I hiked many miles across the Sierra Crest and over high passes to no avail only to walk up a trail near Lone Pine Peak one day and stand within 75’ of a group that allowed me to photograph them until I could no longer hold up my camera and lens.
One thing that I continually considered was the ethics of observation. How frequently and how close was too frequent and too close. These birds and sheep cannot fill out a consent form so it is up to the observer to exercise caution to avoid observation becoming intrusion. On one occasion, I was watching the adult on the eggs and the bird flew off. It was a cool day and I immediately left out of concern for the viability of the eggs.
I want to thank God first of all for this opportunity and privilege. I also want to thank my wife Sharon who encouraged and sometimes accompanied me to the nest view site. Finally, I want to thank Mike Smith the resident Millerton Lake eagle expert and eagle boat tour docent who gave me both guidance and cautionary advice. I am also glad we had an opportunity to hike together to the view site on one occasion.
I am also happy that I could share this experience with so many others via my Mid Sierra Musings blog, the YouTube Video and the California Fish and Wildlife Facebook page.

Two Eagle Chicks, Adult Golden and hawk perched

May God bless you.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Golden Eagles Part 5: The Eagles Fledge

Dale Matson

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Empty Nest 06-15-18 

After the Red-Tailed Hawk fledged I continued to observe and photograph the eagles until they also fledged. That was my original mission. Assuming the eagles and hawk were about the same ages, after the hawk fledged, it would be around twenty more days before the eagles fledged.
It was amusing to watch the eagles as they looked at the hawk practice flying with lots of wing flapping. The eagles were on a different clock and probably didn’t understand the antics of their (step) sibling.
I informed Mike Smith the Millerton Lake resident expert on eagles and the docent on the winter eagle boat tours about the hawk. He was unaware at the time that the Golden Eagle nest also contained a hawk. We went up together to see the hawk and he stopped at a more distant viewing site. He told me, “Ethically I can’t go any closer”. I told him that I would honor his concern that day while with him.
At a later time, I got a communication from him following him observing my wife and I climbing away from a closer view sight. The e-mail cautioned me that we were endangering the young eagles. He was doing his final yearly eagle survey from a boat on the lake. He informed me that this was a time of particular stress and that they might prematurely fledge. This is referred to in the literature as “forced fledgling”.
I took his caution seriously and knew that I could still monitor the eagles from across Millerton Lake on the Fresno County side. My camera and lens were capable of more than 800mm which is similar to a spotting scope. The photos would not be of good quality but good enough to know and record when the eagles fledged without endangering them by being too close and rushing the process.
The distance was now further than any passing boat and about a third of a mile away. I’m sure the eagles could still see me but were not at all stressed at my viewing and photographing them at such a distance.
I am still puzzled at how little time the adults spent in the nest with the nestlings. They would sit for hours high above the nest, often together, on a dead snag tree.

Parents Perched Far Above Nest From Across Lake

I watched and photographed another Golden Eagle nest in the Madera County foothills and the adults were in the nest often. The Millerton nestlings were like “Latch Key Children”. The parenting styles were dramatically different.
About a week and a half ago I observed both nestlings doing considerable wing flapping. I also got a photo of both nestlings with the hawk perched above them for a visit. Last week they were flapping their wings and perched above and around the nest. The short video I included shows the one nestling above and flying down to the nest.

 Testing Wings
 Testing Wings
Eagle Hawk Reunion From Across Lake

Eagle Testing Wings From Across Lake

Yesterday, there was no sign of the nestlings in or around the nest for the two hours I watched from the other side of the lake. Mike was OK with me going up to the view site we were at but I resisted doing this until it was evident that both birds had fledged. I went up to the Madera side view site this morning with no birds evident for two hours in or near the nest. I was disappointed, thinking that now that the eagles had fledged, I might never see them again. The nest looked so abandoned. Before this the empty nest in January was a sign of possibilities to come.
 Empty Nest Photographed From Across Lake
Empty Nest Photographed From Across Lake
Eagle Fledge Returns To Lower Limb Of Nest Tree

As I was about to leave, one of the eagles landed on a limb below the nest. It wasn’t a clear view for me but I was somewhat reassured that the nestlings had successfully fledged.
What a wonderful experience! I will have some final thoughts on an epilogue post.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Golden Eagles Part 4: The Hawk Fledges

Dale Matson

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Fledge Practice

My hope was that this hawk would survive to the point of fledging and on one occasion it was obvious that the hawk had flown from the nest. When I arrived in the morning, there was no hawk. After watching the nest for an hour there was still no sign of the hawk. However, I also hoped I would witness the hawks return to the nest on a future visit. Obviously, the longer the hawk was away from the nest, the less likely it would be that it would return.
The following visit from a more distant vantage point, I could see three birds at the nest using my telephoto lens. It was obvious that one of the birds was the hawk once again. I also saw the hawk on a limb on a tree about 150 meters from the nest and I saw the hawk in flight around the nest. It is hard to say how many more trips to the nest the hawk would make. Hopefully the hawk was finding food on its own. It could be anyone’s guess but I concluded that this hawk had officially fledged the nest.
This has been quite a story to follow and as I look back I feel privileged to have been able to observe this rather unique unfolding of a story with a plucky hawk making it in an eagle’s nest. I am happy the parents were able to provide adequate food for the three birds. In most cases only two birds survive to fledge.
What will happen with the hawk now is hard to say. Hopefully the hawk is hard wired for being and acting like a hawk. Whether there was behavioral imprinting that would cause the hawk to act like an eagle is up for discussion by expert minds. This leaves me out.
Hope you enjoyed the story.