Farmington Bay Bald Eagles 2012 – A Bust!

Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area is typically a mecca for birders and bird photographers during January and February.  When it gets very cold many of Utah’s wintering Bald Eagles congregate there and create quite the spectacle for avian enthusiasts.  Though I’m not particularly fond of photographing birds among throngs of people I usually can’t resist the unusual opportunity with these magnificent birds and join in the fray multiple times during the “season”.   

 

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  1/1250, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

One thing that especially appeals to me about Farmington Bay is the opportunity to photograph these eagles in flight with the Wasatch Mountains as a background.  Even though such a background makes it much more difficult for focus to “lock on” the bird I really like the dramatic backdrop the dark, often shaded mountains provide when there’s light on the eagle – much more appealing for me than the typical blue sky background. 

 

 

 

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Typically there are hundreds of eagles at the refuge during “prime time”.   I once counted 225 birds and that’s just the ones I could see.  Others have reported from 300-400 birds.  This photo should give you some idea, though it shows just one small portion of Unit One.  The concentration of birds was about the same that day everywhere you looked over the ice. 

 

 

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This is the famous “eagle tree”.  I’ve seen as many as 20 birds on this one perch alone.  Of course the eagles prefer to look south over the ice and water so it’s difficult to catch multiple birds in the tree looking toward the photographer. 

 

 

bald-eagle-1355 1/2000, f/8, ISO 500, 500 f/4

Most of these birds are fairly wary of people, at least at first.  But every year there seems to be one eagle that sort of “adopts” humans and almost seems to enjoy being very close to them.  Two years ago this 4th year bird hung around a pole near the “owl bridge” and didn’t fly off with vehicles going by within a few feet of it.  Notice I didn’t even need my teleconverter for this shot and it’s a small crop.  Last year the “tame” bird was a first year juvenile (I believe) that was even more acclimated to humans and would land on perches within about 15′ of multiple photographers.  Believe me it is very impressive to have this huge wingspan coming at you at such close range.  However, this type of familiarity with humans is the exception rather than the rule. 

 

 

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  1/1250, f/8, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc

Before fish become available in large numbers as a food source (more about that below) the eagles must scrounge for themselves and competition for a meal is fierce.  Here one of the eagles has killed a coot (under the bottom bird) and carried it out into the flats to enjoy its meal in peace but the tranquility was fleeting as three other eagles and two ravens almost immediately came in for their fair share.  The pandemonium easily lasted for ten minutes. 

  

 

bald-eagles-2562   1/2500, f/8, ISO 500, 500 f/4

Typically sometime in early February refuge personnel use rotenone (a naturally occurring chemical found in some plants) to kill the invasive carp that cause so much damage to the marsh plants vital for waterfowl – that’s when things get really exciting at Farmington Bay.  Usually the fish float down the stream channels and collect in ponds or in front of bridges which concentrates the eagles.  Eagles are extremely competitive for food and their skirmishes can be very dramatic.   All this tension provides many interesting opportunities for birders and photographers.  

 

 

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And given an opportunity like this, believe me the bird photographers will come.  Hordes of them.  This was the scene at the “4 way” pond on the early morning of February 12, 2009  before the sun came up over the Wasatch.  Each of the 22 vehicles contained at least one photographer and there were others along the dike road behind me.  Many of those photographers arrived when it was still pitch dark in order to stake out the best spots for photography. 

Which brings me to the point of this post.  This winter at Farmington Bay has been a stark contrast to previous years – there just aren’t any eagles, at least not many.  Every time I’ve been out there this season the eagles have been very scarce.  I was there yesterday morning and counted 4 eagles, all far off or flying high overhead.  Others report similar findings. 

Why the difference this year?  I believe there are two reasons for it.  This winter has been unusually warm with very little snow and I suspect that many of the eagles simply didn’t need to migrate as far south as Utah in order to survive the winter comfortably.  I’ve also heard reports from other areas of the country (particularly the mid-west) of lower than normal numbers of eagles this winter. 

And the bird photography “grapevine” is reporting that, for whatever reason, the carp weren’t killed this winter (at least so far).  With such an easy food source unavailable to the eagles it seems logical that Farmington wouldn’t draw in many of the birds that may be in the area.  This will be deeply disappointing to many photographers, especially those who come in from out-of-state for the eagles.

But such are the vagaries of bird photography…

Ron

PS – If the situation at Farmington should change in the near future I’ll report it here immediately. 

Update on Feb. 17, 2012 – Mike Shaw reports (see his fairly detailed comment in my comment section) that the carp have now been killed at Farmington so there’s plenty of fish for the eagles but their numbers out there are still very low.  Mike knows what he’s talking about when it comes to raptors so you might want to check out what he had to say.

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13 comments to Farmington Bay Bald Eagles 2012 – A Bust!

  • There were lots of Eagles actually. And this year they seemed to be more people friendly than anywhere else. Often just flying 20 feet over my head. I counted at least 25 individuals in one area alone, just before the dike. I also saw at least 10 flying around in the East at the foothills of the mountain. There were also 10 more at the end of the dike road. They may just be somewhere else where the food is in higher numbers.
    Raptors go where the food is. Plain and simple. Maybe I was in the right place at the right time. Anytime you get shots like you just did here, Is a great day worth the time and effort. Especially of the three eagles fighting. Good job!

  • Charlotte Mitchell

    I just viewed some of your fantastic photos of the eagles. I have been to Farmington Bay, several times over the past few years, and this year was a most unforgetable because of lack of eagles. I wasn’t disappointed, because the Hawk Watch group was there, one of them I know, pointed out to me and a couple of my friends that came with me, of the one lonely eagle, this was about 9:30 a.m. We stayed until about 11:00. Did see a couple of hawks. part of an beaver skull and a snake in the grass. It was a nice day. I have gotten some good photos in past years, but of course don’t have the telephoto lens that you have to get those magnificent shots. Your group of birds are lovely.
    Thanks for sharing your photos.
    Charlotte

    • Thanks Charlotte. Yes, it’s been a slow eagle season out there but thankfully there’s nearly always something else that’s wonderful to see on every trip. Farmington Bay is one of my very favorite places!

  • Hi Ron,

    First, my compliments on your excellent site. We visited Farmington Bay WMA on Feb 20 at around noon. There were four eagles in the Eagle Tree. There were at least 20 eagles on the ground at a distance of approx 300 yards west of the Dike Road and about 1/3 mile south of the Owl Bridge. We counted four eagles in the air in this same area. There are still many unclaimed carp lying around…

    Cheers,

    P.

  • […] down south for the carp. For some really lovely photos from previous Bald Eagle Days, check out Ron Dudley’s Feathered Photography blog. His photos rock! If I can’t get some decent photos of the Bald Eagles then why not look at […]

  • My husband and a friend of mine also went to the Farmington Bay on that day as well and were sorely disappointed. But then we went to Antelope Island and at Garr Ranch the couple of Great Horned Owls were out and alert. But light wasn’t very good. Oh well. Happy to see the Great Horned Owls Nice shots you got from previous Eagles days, though!

  • mike shaw

    Hi Ron, I attended Eagle Day last Saturday at FB along with a couple of education birds from HawkWatch. It was a quiet affair. One lone adult BE was spotted sitting on the ice far off to the east, and even Harriers seemed in short supply. Plenty of carp and gulls though, as the DWR had applied the rotenone treatment 4 days earlier. I’d never actually gone into the Nature Center before- you’ve got a couple of beautiful shots displayed! On the way home I did a quick loop through the north end of the airport and saw 14 BEs perched in the same big cottonwood tree alongside an old ranch house. Two guys were working on a truck directly below and the birds didn’t seem to be bothered. Go figure.

    I suspect that the warm winter and thin to none snow cover has also contributed to fewer Eagles congregating in one particular spot. There’s open water and adequate food everywhere, making them less dependent on the FB carp bonanza. Every meat eating bird in Utah seems to have fresh prey remains on their bill and feet along with a full crop.

  • doogie41

    Amazing photos.

    I had planned on going to Antelope Island this weekend to see if I could catch any owls. Any suggestions to a newbie? Also, I caught a bald eagle perched on giant semaphores by Daybreak in South Jordan on Super Bowl Sunday. I am just really starting to get into raptor photography but I am amazed at how many different species that I have seen this year. Weird weather. Very weird. Thanks for posting. doogie41

  • Oh. They are just amazing. Our Wedgetail eagle is a majestic bird also but we never see more than a family group (and that rarely). I am sorry that this year is a bust for you but really, really grateful for the earlier photos. Thank you.

  • Thanks Bob. Actually though, all of the photos in this post are from previous years. Sadly I don’t have anything on eagles from this year and the season’s rapidly coming to a close. A Snowy in Texas – wowsers!

  • Ron, I would hardly call that Eagle shoot a bust. What a nice collection of superb photographs. This year has been a strange one for birds. I found out today that a SNOWY OWL has been seen, verified, and photographed at Lake Ray Hubbard near Dallas, Texas. Reports say it has been hanging around there for the past two weeks.

    Here in San Angelo, I myself have seen two Brown Creepere, seven Western Bluebirds, and a Green-tailed Towhee. They all are usually found far west of here. What’s next?? Maybe a Snowy here in west Texas………? Hopefully. :-)