Sub-adult Golden Eagles Playing King Of The Hill

While photographing birds you’d better be ready for anything because you just never know what they’re going to do.


Three days ago while driving a fairly remote road we spotted this sub-adult Golden Eagle perched atop a power pole in northern Utah. Lately I’ve largely given up even trying to photograph raptors on power poles because of issues with ugly perches, wires and steep angles but I find it very difficult to drive by a Golden Eagle so I stopped and took a few documentary images and hoped I might get lucky with some takeoff shots.

We also noticed a second eagle on a power pole down the line but at this point we didn’t pay much attention to it. Notice the somewhat unusual white “eyebrows” on this bird that are helpful in distinguishing it from the other eagle that we’re about to see.

This eagle took off mostly away from me so I started to drive down the road again. As I began to get a little closer to the second eagle on the faraway pole we noticed this one turn in the air and begin to fly in the direction of the perched bird so I hurried on down the road in the hopes of seeing some kind of interaction or altercation as the “eyebrow” eagle approached the other bird.



I stopped my pickup and aimed my lens just in time to photograph the beginning of the encounter. At this point I could see that both birds were sub-adults. I thought there was going to be an aggressive encounter and from the posture of the perched bird I suspect it might have been prepared for the same thing but it soon became apparent…



that the intention of the approaching eagle was to land on top of the insulator with the other eagle. But there appeared to be no room for both huge birds on that perch so I figured one bird would vacate the premises, perhaps after a brief squabble. But I was wrong.



Both eagles were stubborn and reluctant to give up the perch so they tussled and jockeyed for position on the insulator. It lasted long enough that I took 14 shots with one bird still in the air but so close to the other one that they were obviously in physical contact with each other the entire time.



Soon the two birds had all four feet on the perch but they were still trying to make room for their large bodies.



Eventually they were both able to stay atop the perch. I believe they were able to accomplish the feat because each bird appeared to place one foot on the insulator and the other on the adjacent wire. The “coziness” of the pair leads me to believe that they are siblings.

They stayed here for quite a while before they both flew off. At that point I figured the excitement was over but once again I was wrong. I drove further down the road and then noticed one of the eagles had landed on another pole in front of me and the second bird flying toward it.



Once again I rushed toward them hoping to get close enough to them in time for documentary shots of the developing encounter. I barely made it. Here the perched eagle (this time roles were reversed and the “eyebrow” bird was the one that was already perched) is turning on the insulator in preparation for meeting the incoming eagle head on.



And here it comes.





But at the last moment the perched eagle decided that discretion was the better part of valor and vacated the insulator…



just prior to the interloper claiming it.



That bird stayed on the insulator for a few minutes and then defecated and took off (away from me of course). At that point I left the area looking for other birds.

Seeing this fascinating behavior made me wonder how many times these two birds have done the same thing since they left the nest early last summer (assuming they’re siblings). And it also makes me curious as to precisely why they do it.

I may not know the reason for the behavior but I was absolutely delighted to have witnessed it.


Note – Most of these shots were taken at or close to the following image techs:

  • 1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 640, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Addendum: There’s been some interest in the comments below in an encounter Barby Anderson had with a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk and a squirrel.  She sent me some photos and I’ve included one of them below with Barby’s permission. If interested you can learn more about it in her comment.


Copyright Barby Anderson, image used by permission.


Light Morph Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson’s Hawks are awash in northern Utah right now. Yesterday morning I saw more than I could count and some were extremely approachable.


1/4000, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

I encountered this light morph Swainson’s on a fencepost next to the road very shortly after dawn. I spent a few minutes photographing it but it was cold (33° F.) and the hawk was warming in the early morning sun so it barely moved a feather while I was there.

Once I had a few shots (yes I had more shutter speed than I needed) I decided to move on down the road but that meant I’d have to pass very close to the bird. I don’t like to flush birds but in this situation I had no practical choice so I proceeded very slowly, fully expecting it to take off.



1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 360mm, not baited, set up or called in

But even when I was closest to the post the hawk didn’t fly so when it turned slightly on its perch and gave me more of a side view I grabbed my “baby lens” and fired off a few shots. I like the ambience of this image with the layered colors of the background, the extremely warm side light and the old weathered post. The bit of blood on one of the toes is an appropriate touch for this predatory bird.

I suspect many of these hawks are still migrating – there’s just too many for all of them to be nesting in the same general vicinity. But there seems to be plenty of available food (voles mostly) in the region so it’s an attractive staging area for them and other birds. Even Great Blue Herons in good numbers are hunting voles in the fields and pastures.

It should be a good year for raptors in northern Utah – at least in part because vole populations seem to be on the upswing.