Sea eagles on ice please

2 07 2013

I was on safari in Japan recently, and had the good fortune to photograph the magnificent stellar sea eagles.  This is quite an experience, one that surprised me in all the right ways.

 

We set out on our icebreaker cruise first thing in the morning, and were lucky to have had the sea ice drift south over night (quick info: no ice = no eagles; there was no ice the evening we arrived).  We headed out straight for the ice (which never seems like a good idea: titanic), and wedged ourselves between the massive blocks of white rock.  The hull of the boat squealed each time we made contact with a new piece of ice, causing even the brave to keep a concerned eye on the lifeboats.  Just as we got settled, the first of these massive eagles swooped past us, looking for bits of fish.

The stellar sea eagle is the world’s largest eagle, which is quite apparent even at a distance.  While the short distance between eagle number one and our cameras did not disguise their size, when eagle number two came and landed less than ten meters away from us, it was properly understood.  These are some seriously big birds.  They are just fantastic to watch, and even better to photograph.  The white-tailed eagles we had seen before also joined in the feast of fish found on the ice, and were somewhat dwarfed by these oversized raptors.  Two and a half hours of pure bliss resulting in thousands of images.  Towards the end, I counted close to one hundred eagles sitting and flying all around us.  To anyone who has even the slightest interest in photography, birding or life experiences, this is an absolute must do!

To join me on safari, click here!

 

 





Skilled thievery

22 05 2013

Sometimes the best intentions can be misunderstood.  This is exactly the case in Japan, where feeding stations were created to rehabilitate and restore the alarmingly low numbers of the Japanese red-crowned crane (there are an estimated eight hundred breeding pairs left, a number which has increased greatly over the last fifty years).

Corn is thrown out on a daily basis to help the cranes get through the long cold winter and to boost breeding in the spring, but occasionally fish are thrown out as well.

Enter the white-tailed eagles.  They have cleverly seen that the cranes are being fed delicious, pre-caught fish, and wanted in on the action, so that’s what they did.  They started hanging around the crane sanctuaries, keeping an eye on proceedings, and when they see the juicy fish thrown out onto the snow, they begin their decent. They move quickly and quietly, and to try catch the flocks of cranes by surprise so as to steal the fish with as little fuss as possible.

Many wary cranes eyes now keep an upward watch for these eagles, and let out a loud squawk when the eagles drop into the flock.  Amplify this by one hundred birds all squeaking at the same time, and feeding becomes chaotic. For the most part, the cranes get the fish they need to make it through the winter, but a large portion goes (unintentionally) to sustaining the white–tailed eagle population.

I was leading a photographic safari to Japan earlier in the year, and managed to witness this fantastic interaction between the birds.  It is a photographer’s heaven; there is more going on than any one person can photograph, leaving you glued to the action and clicking away like crazy. The eagles don’t have it all their own way however. As they make off with some freshly stolen fish, the carrion crows swoop in and start harassing the eagles, picking up the dropped pieces.  It really is half an hour of madness that provides thousands of great images.

 

To join me on next years Japan: Winter Wildlife Safari, click here!