Pour a cup of coffee and join me as we revisit this morning eagle-watching outing. Oh! You might want to grab a coat.
The chill in the damp, predawn air confirms the 40° reading on the thermometer as I leave my home. After getting into the car, securing my camera and properly adjusting the heater, I reach into my pockets for my gloves. As I begin the two-mile drive to Eastwood Lake I half-heartedly chuckle to myself for getting up earlier than the sun. But this is Dayton, Ohio and there are only two resident bald Eagles in the city. Therefore to get a decent picture of a local Bald Eagle occasionally a photographer must be in place before the eagles begin to stir. Yesterday, Roger had captured a few images of the eagles passing directly overhead, just after daybreak, on their way to the Eastwood area.
After a quick swing through a nearby drive-through for a fresh cup of coffee, I find myself sitting at the locked gate at the park’s entrance. In the glow of my headlights I can see the form of a lone whitetail buck as he nonchalantly crosses the entrance road and then silently vanishes into the underbrush. After ten minutes or so the sky to the east begins to show a hint of the silhouetted treetops. Another ten minutes later the empty park roadway is clearly visible in the dawning light. Soon Roger’s Jeep turns into the driveway behind me. As we wait in the hazy stillness we watch several lines of Double-crested Cormorants pass overhead and we talk about our eagles.
Before long, a MetroParks maintenance worker arrives to unlock the gate and with the path now cleared we make our way to the edge of the lake. A lone Red-Tailed Hawk is already perched on the limb of a nearby tree intently surveying the ground below for any potential morsel that might dare to move in the first rays of the day. We know from experience that the eagles will leave the wellfield to venture out on their morning patrol of their territory. We hope that they will follow their customary route over the east end of Eastwood Lake, so that is where we park and wait. From this vantage point we can also view the aerie just 1/2 mile to our east, now clearly visible against the glow of the cloud-masked sunrise. The aerie is unoccupied.
There are large birds leaving the well field and heading in our direction. Some are flying solo and others are flying with a companion, but they are not eagles. They are just some of the many, ever-present Great Blue Heron approaching the lake in search of breakfast. My first glimpse of an eagle comes some 30 minutes later when I see movement at the nest. As I focus my camera on the activity that has caught my eye I am pleased to see that Cindy has landed in the nest and is apparently placing a new stick in its ideal location. I smile. Knowing that this is Courting Season I can be sure that Jim is near the nest for he would not venture far from his mate. After about ten minutes in the nest, Cindy hops up onto what we have come to call the front porch.
This is the section of the nest’s rim where the eagles usually sit just before departing the nest. After another 2 minutes she spreads her wings takes flight.
Focusing on the tree line along the south side of Eagle Lake, just across the road from Eastwood, I soon catch a glimpse of Cindy flying northward 20 feet above the water. This may be our chance. Often they will fly in that direction, make a sharp left turn and cross over to Eastwood Lake. But Cindy seems to be determined to continue on her northbound course as she reaches the northern shore of Eagle Lake. I then notice the dark form of Jim passing over the lake trailing after her. As I stand beside my car with my camera at the ready I glance a hundred feet or so down the roadway and see Roger’s big lens also tracking the eagles’ movements. To our dismay both eagles cross over Ohio Route 4 and vanish beyond the adjacent high school.
Now as I have previously mentioned, we only have these two eagles so we have become quite familiar with their habits and patterns. We surmise that today they have decided to begin their morning security check by heading north to scope out The Great Miami River as it parallels Rip Rap Road. Both Roger and I begin to drive in that direction. It is only a 6 1/2 mile drive by car but quite a bit shorter as the eagle flies. Roger makes the left turn onto Harshman Road and leads the way as I impatiently wait for a gap in traffic. Several minutes later I turn right onto Rip Rap Road but I see no sign of Roger’s Jeep. I do however notice two large Bald Eagles flying above the river to my left, just slightly ahead of my car. I smile and think to myself that at least Jim and Cindy haven’t outsmarted me again. I can feel my right foot growing a little heavy on the accelerator as I attempt to reach a parking lot a mile farther up the road before the eagles pass it by.
I do. But as I place the car in park, grab my camera and open the door, Jim and Cindy emerge from behind a nearby tree. The lighting is still poor as the shutter begins to sing. It is just about at this time that I become consciously aware of the adrenaline flowing through my body. I lean on the top of the still opened car door to help stabilize the camera as I focus on the flying eagles. They are within just a few feet of each other when they land in a tree on the far side of the river as it flows just beyond the nearby soccer fields. I smile again.
“Now is my chance for a decent picture!” I think as I reach back into the car to turn off the ignition. I stuff the keys in my coat pocket, lock the doors and begin walking towards the river. The grass of the soccer field is tall and heavily laden with thick dew. I know that the eagles can see me much more clearly than I can see them, so every hundred feet or so I pause to capture a few images of the pair just in case they would decide to move on. About halfway across the soccer fields another thought crosses my mind and I check the battery of my camera. I’m glad that I do. The current battery is almost exhausted and I would never forgive myself if I missed this opportunity, even with the hazy light, just because I forgot to switch batteries. I pause near a midfield goalpost and quickly install a fully charged battery in the camera before continuing on my way.
I am aware that Jim and Cindy are very intelligent birds and I am sure that over the years they have seen me frequently enough to know that I pose no threat. At times I have jokingly suggested that by now they have most likely memorized the numbers on my license plate. Living in an urban setting they are accustomed to human activity so this morning I decide to not try to hide my advance but to approach them with a straight and determined pace. I can see through my camera lens that they are indeed looking directly at me as I approach.
The river will provide a natural barrier and, as always, I will maintain a respectable distance from the pair. After several more short stops to capture images, I am reassured of their comfort with my presence as they begin to casually preen their feathers.
I am extremely pleased when I reach the asphalt bikeway that follows the east bank of the river. Just about now I wonder why it is that we never seem to have the proper combination of nearby eagles and adequate sunlight for decent photography.
For ten minutes I capture image after image of our beautiful Jim and Cindy. They are being extremely cooperative and I repeatedly reposition myself while trying to make use of the available lighting and the existing background clutter. After a while the preening abruptly stops and I notice both Jim and Cindy assuming a more upright and alert posture while intensely staring off to the east. I am so concentrated on the regal pair in the treetop that it never crosses my mind to turn around to see what has demanded their attention. Just then Jim lowers his head and sounds an alarm-call, leaning forward in a very agitated and annoyed manner.
In the blink of an eye he flies off and within ten seconds Cindy is headed in the same direction.
With my lens trained on the flying eagles I pivot to my right, while carefully following their movement. Their flight is purposeful and determined. As I glance away from the viewfinder I am surprised to see two more adult Bald Eagles approaching from the east! And Jim and Cindy are flying right at them! I cannot believe that I am seeing four adult Bald Eagles battling for territory right here in Dayton, Ohio! I watch in awe for a moment or two before I remember that I’m holding a camera. I adjust the lens to try to capture a few images of all four birds in one frame.
It really isn’t much of a battle as the two intruders immediately turn and head northward with Jim in close pursuit of one and Cindy, a few hundred feet away, in close pursuit of the other. I stand there, mesmerized and watching them fly above the distant treetops.
Once the eagles have disappeared from sight I become acutely aware of my cold, wet feet and my shivering bare hands. As I make my way back across the soggy field I realize that this might be why Jim and Cindy have been frequently spotted perched along this area of the river during the past few weeks. I wonder if these intruding Bald Eagles are the same eagles that have begun nesting a few miles to the north in Tipp City/ Troy, Ohio area. If these neighboring eagles have been encroaching on Jim and Cindy’s domain, then perhaps Jim and Cindy have been making daily trips to insure that these birds understand that this river is already claimed. This entire encounter happened within a mile of Roger’s home. It turns out that he was parked a short distance down the road looking for Jim and Cindy.
After a short phone call and a quick meeting with Roger, I make my way back home with the car heater set on high, 439 new images on my camera and another big smile on my face! The day is still young but already it has been a day full of surprises!