EL DORADO RESERVOIR, Kan. — Had my hands been holding a bow, I’d have passed the shakes as buck fever.
Since they were grasping a camera, it had to be classified as photo fever … or maybe it was the cold, or both.
Eight hours in a small blind was a lot through the cold. Thankfully the bald eagle eventually came so close I saw the light reflecting in its eyes.
We’ve long taken game we’d cleaned back to the wilds so it could continue nature’s cycle.
Trail cameras on our leftovers captured the nighttime images of raccoons, skunks, foxes, dogs, opossums, and coyotes.
A chance to photograph daylight scavengers came when I cleaned two whitetails in a big wheat field near El Dorado Reservoir. Eagles at the lake, I figured, would enjoy the carrion.
I staked the remains so coyotes couldn’t drag them away, and saturated the area with human scent to also help keep them away.
I added a goose carcass to sweeten the pile.
After two days, a trail camera showed a mature eagle feeding occasionally, and an immature bird daily. At least four red-tailed hawks frequented the scene, often engaging in impressive tussles.
A pop-up ground blind was placed in a nearby house-sized grove of trees. Tuesday morning the landowner drove me to the blind so birds wouldn’t see a human around the scene.
All seemed perfect.
But hours passed with no birds seen. I was pulling lunch from a noisy plastic bag when I heard the alarmed squeal of a redtail overhead.
I realized I’d set the blind under the highest hackberry in the little woodlot, probably where the redtails sat and watched over their buffet. Surely they heard me rustling around in the blind.
So I spent the next three hours all but immobile, which added greatly to the chill, hoping the hawks would come to the pile to feed.
One eventually landed, but left after one photo.
The day was about to be considered a wash when a plane-sized shadow passed and the immature eagle landed 20 yards from the carcasses.
I’ve photographed eagles several times, but usually in downtown Wichita or some Alaskan park where they’re acclimated to people. It’s productive, but about as exciting as buying meat from a store compared to earning it afield.
This was far different and adrenaline kicked in.
Rather than rush for shots, I watched and waited as the bird cautiously approached the nearest deer. I didn’t punch the shutter until it was well focused on eating.
Over the next 40 minutes I shot more than 400 frames of the unsuspecting bird. It was amazing to see how it used its powerful talons to pull strips of hide so it could tear into flesh. A few times it back-pumped its wings for extra power.
The golden, late-day light added to the experience, which a 400mm digital lens brought right in.
The bird left on its own, never knowing I was there.
When it was gone, I climbed from the blind to stretch stiff muscles and increase the circulation to bring warmth.
It was a long day, but I’ll probably be back.
I really want to photograph those redtails duking it out. No doubt that will get me shaking again, too.
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