I was shooting in the fog — the silhouettes of crows foraging at low tide — when every bird on the beach suddenly flushed and flew into the mist.
I’ve been photographing shorebirds long enough to realize this usually means a predator is overhead. But, I’ve in Seattle in advance of our relocation. So … it didn’t occur to me immediately that the raptor in question could be big and bald … with a beak as tough as power shears.
A Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) glided just above the rocky shore, then landed in a hillside tree, preening, and raising the hackles of crows who cawed at it from a nearby tree. That characteristic hook of its profile was shrouded in fog.
Sure, I could raise levels and sharpness on the image and render a rough outline. But that’s not what I saw. This is what I saw, exactly, like a scrim of sleeplessness across my contact lenses.
Right about this same time, a homeowner came over to inform me that I was shooting from private property which, frankly, seemed implausible to me, since I was sloshing around in a minus-point-one tide, unable to see anything in the fog but the barnacles breathing beneath my shoes. I didn’t intend to trespass.
We had a polite and animated discussion, I apologized profusely and retreated to the quarter acre of public beach I’ve been directed to, then snap a few images of my spectacular new vision as she reigns over the panorama of the Sound.
Got the shot. Eagle’s still there. Now I can think about what seeing this eagle, in this tree, on this beach actually means to me.
Bald Eagles are obviously not bald in the hairless sense, but rather balde in the Old English language sense — “balde” meaning “white.” Once considered vermin by many, more than 100,000 Bald Eagles were killed in Alaska between 1917 and 1953. Their survival was threatened by humans even before they became victims of the mid-century DDT effect — the ingestion of which renders the metabolic compound DDE which compromises the integrity of their egg shells.** Eggshell thinning also affected the already-beleaguered population of Brown Pelicans at the time. The same was true of Peregrine Falcons.
In 1976, three years after the Endangered Species Act was passed, Bald Eagles were declared officially endangered and were thus protected. In the ensuing years, they’ve made a spectacular comeback. This very spot where I photographed the eagle, was an old Northwest retreat of mine years ago. Back then, we were lucky to see a Mallard on the pond, let alone a Bald Eagle preening in a Madrone. This was around the time Bald Eagles were added to the Endangered Species list.
It was also the time when I was more interested in water skiing and beer than in wetlands biology and species recovery. You could say the Bald Eagle and I both recovered.
** As you may know, there’s some backlash now against the idea of the pesticide DDT having an effect on avian eggs. It’s an argument generally launched from the conservative side of the political spectrum, by those who want to bring back DDT (Driessen).
Ronald Bailey, writing in Reason magazine, a Libertarian publication not known for a liberal bias, acknowledged the DDE effect but concludes in his piece that it’s a matter of how much DDT is used and where.
DDE is, in fact, a studied contributor to the eggshell effect in raptors like eagles.