During the middle of November we saw a spike in Bald Eagle activity at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston SC. This is my view of what happened. It started with the gulls.
We had some unseasonable weather that week; cold, rain, and wind. I hadn’t ventured out with my camera for a few days, but by Saturday, November 16th I was getting cabin fever. I bundled up and ventured out.
Parking in the lot, I made my way across the plantation to what we call the boat landing. It is a lagoon on the large former rice field which is now a wildlife preserve. Two pontoon boats used for tours are slipped there. As I walked down the dike, I saw an unusually large number of gulls feeding on schooling bait fish. They were really going after them, but many of the fish appeared to be too large for them to swallow, so they would drop them back into the surf. I didn’t think too much of it at the time.
My wife and I came back on Sunday and decided to climb the observation tower in an attempt to get some eagle shots. That’s when I first noticed there appeared to new eagles in the area.
The above bird in particular caught my eye. Magnolia has a resident population of eagles, including some juveniles. But, I had never seen this one before.
We got several close shots at passing eagles from the tower.
We went home very happy that day. I came back Monday morning, and again started out in the observation tower.
Again, on Tuesday.
The action in the tower slowed down for a bit, so I decided to walk over to the boat landing to see what was going on over there.
That’s when it dawned on me what the attraction was for the eagles. They would let the gulls find, catch, and drop fish, then scoop down to pick them up! They were serving them up on a platter for the eagles. Pretty smart!
The action continued Wednesday and Thursday.
I came out Friday morning, and it was all over. The gulls were gone. The migrating eagles were gone, leaving our resident birds to their home once again.
Magnolia’s ecologist, Stacy Turner and photographer Guenter Weber sighted 10 eagles in the sky at one time during that week. Many photographers came out to get incredible shots of these beautiful and majestic birds.
I doubt I will ever forget that week, and I am extremely grateful to have been able to witness it.
Some of my images from this past year, most taken at Magnolia Plantation.
Made of nice heavy card stock, two sizes available. You don’t need to contact me to purchase, click on the picture above and it takes you directly to the site. You can purchase the calendar there and they will ship it directly to you.
All proceeds go to my photography addiction. 🙂
Simply amazing! Words don’t describe it. Photos don’t convey what it’s like. Even videos don’t do it justice. You have to be there. Amazing.
The dragon is 200 feet long, and the scales are actually China platters, installed one at a time.
A short video follows the photos.
There is a tree by the tour boat landing that the eagles frequent. Sometimes one, sometimes both of the mated pair. I stop by almost every time I visit Magnolia.
One day, I approached to find another photographer, John Nickerson, keeping an eye on the perched male. As we were talking, I heard “eagle talk.” It sounds like this:
We looked up to see the female make a fly-by in front of the male, then circle around in back to land on the same branch the male was on. We wanted to catch her in flight, but the female was now hidden behind a tree to the left of where the male was sitting. We were going to have about two seconds, max, if we were to capture her before she cleared the tree and landed on the branch.
I threw up my camera and hoped for the best. These were taken at 1/500 of a second, f/8. The slower shutter speed was because I was taking shots of the perched bird and wanted to keep the ISO down. When the female showed up, I didn’t react fast enough to bump the shutter speed up. The Nikon D810 is an incredible camera, and it did it’s job.
Good luck, being in the right place at the right time, and great equipment saved the day. I do work hard at being prepared for opportunities like this, but I don’t always get the captures.
The only thing that would have made this better? It was a cloudy day. A blue sky would have been nice. 🙂 Maybe next time!
Big change in weather from yesterday morning. I ran into Rick Dandridge, Guenter Weber, and Tom Hains. I had lunch with Guenter and Tom, and then we went frog and snake hunting. Great times!
After having some success with the Bald Eagles yesterday, I was anxious to get back to Magnolia for more.
We say “There is always something to photograph at Magnolia.” But, where to go in the rain? It was coming down hard enough that I was carrying a rain jacket, an umbrella, and a rain cover for my camera/lens. It makes for some really awkward shooting, and I was wondering where I could go to get in out of the rain, and still get some images.
The boat tour! The pontoon boat has a canopy over it. Cap’n Dick was at the helm this morning. I have to say I think his alligator impression has gotten better. And boy, did we see some birds.
Security is always on duty here.
I had a few close shots before we even left port.
The rain had slowed, but was still coming down. It was going to make for a soft white background.
We cruised down the first channel. Along the way, an unidentified raptor.
A regular cast member…
…and a beautiful drake Wood Duck.
At the end of the channel we took a hard left, and two Bald Eagles came into view. First one appeared to be a female, and we got really close. She just watched us float by.
The next one seemed a bit smaller, probably a male.
When we got within about 75 yards he took flight, crossing directly in front of the pontoon boat.
Taking another left, we headed into duck country. Lots of Blue Wing Teal.
On the last leg, some more familiar friends.
All within a half hour!
I feel very blessed to live so close to this beautiful sanctuary, and to be able to spend so much time there.
I wanted to check back with Osprey Heaven to see if the 5 Ospreys were still hunting there. I hadn’t been in over a month, since the WMA it is on was closed for Bow hunting.
I decided to stop at Duck Alley–a dike between two marshes–first, as ducks seem to get up earlier than Ospreys. lol Or so it seems. I pulled into the parking lot and the skies were just beginning to light up. By the time I got rigged up and onto the dike, flocks of white birds were in the air.
Some of these early shots are high ISO as the sun was just coming up.
They all headed for the same open area in the marsh, about 100 yards off of the dike. I hustled out to hide behind some brush close to where they were landing. It was still so early, they either didn’t see me or didn’t care, because flock after flock poured into the marsh.
It was exciting to be so close to the action. It was LOUD! Photos don’t do it justice. I made a short cell phone video, with sound, although the sound is faint on the recording.
After about 30 minutes of watching, I was ready to move on further down the dike. But I was trapped! If I left now, they would all take to the air. I try to avoid disturbing large flocks like this, so I sat tight. Eventually they filtered away from me, further into the marsh. I headed down the dike and set up at my favorite hide.
Wearing camo, I just set my folding chair back into the palm fronds a bit and the shadows hide me pretty well. Now, to watch the parade.
I wanted to check a couple of other favorite spots, so I packed up and headed off. No Ospreys at Osprey Heaven. Maybe they migrated south. At the next stop, I ran into a couple of little birds that I’d been chasing for a while. Not the greatest images.
That’s a wrap, and I was home by noon. “Pass Shooting” off a dike is one of my favorite ways to photograph birds. Wear the right clothing, find some cover, and wait for the birds to come to you. It takes a little patience, but what better place to spend a morning then experiencing the sights and sounds of the marsh?
Had a date with an Eagle, up early and here we go.
A little foggy upon entry, but it burned off fast. This time of year, I guess we can look forward to more of that.
I headed for the boat landing, but didn’t get too far before I could see that an Eagle was on it’s perch.
I believe this is a male. It’s a bit smaller than some that I have seen here.
Golden Hour is “the period of time shortly after sunrise or before sunset, during which daylight is redder and softer than when the sun is higher in the sky.” You can really see the effect on this next shot.
I was watching him, hoping for an in-flight shot when I heard someone approaching. Guenter Weber is back! Good to see him. Eventually I got tired of waiting and headed for the boat landing. After a while the Eagle did take flight.
Now, time for a boat ride with Captain Sy and Guenter.
For a good time, it’s hard to beat standing on the deck of a moving pontoon boat taking captures of birds, both stationary and in the air.
Back at the dock, it’s time for me to head home. Just a couple more along the way.
And, the Red Shouldered Hawk sees me out.
Another day, another boat tour at Magnolia. More ducks around now.
One thing about Red Shouldered Hawks, a lot of the time they let you know where they are. Their shrill cry sounds like nothing else. Then it’s just a matter of tracking them down, sometimes a lot harder than it sounds.
Other times, A friend gives you a heads up and saves you the trouble. That’s how I got onto this pair.
Above was my attempt from yesterday. Not too great! Nature photographers know that, aside from understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your camera/lens, the two things which are necessary to make great images are being close to your subject, and good light. Both affect detail which is what portrait shots are all about.
I came back the next day for another round. Not perfect, but better. The light was good and I was able to get a little closer. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to capture the two hawks together again. Maybe another day.
Same pose, different hawk. Notice the difference in the head coloration, for one thing. This might be a male/female, or an adult/juvenile.
Who doesn’t like bird-in-flight images? I live for them. These aren’t perfect either, but they do show what majestic birds these are.
Thanks for the show, RSH. See you again soon.
Purchase prints and more at http://www.capturingtheunseen.com
When the Corona virus closed down my favorite birding spot, I decided to pick things up a notch in our backyard. I had always fed birds there, but it was tough to keep the squirrels out of the feeders and they liked to eat me out of house and home. I decided to take another look and see what I could do.
Recommendations for bird feeder location is 10 feet from the nearest surface that a squirrel could climb, and 4-5 feet above the ground. My backyard is fairly small, but has 12 mature trees in it. I did some measuring and found that there was one spot where I could be 10 feet from anything: Right where our firepit was located. So, I moved the fire pit and took some new found Corona virus cash to Wild Birds Unlimited. This is my current setup, ever evolving.
Some of the birds we have coming on a regular basis:
In late 2019 I came upon a large nest while exploring the woods of the South Carolina Lowcountry. I decided to check back periodically to see if it was, as I suspected, a Bald Eagle nest. These are images I captured from December 2019 to March 2020.
I made a point to always stay a good distance from the nest in order to not disturb the family. Some of these captures look like I was very close, but I was using a 150-600mm telephoto lens with a 1.4x teleconverter, and cropped the images 1:1. Most are from at least a 1/4 mile away.
I have no doubt they always knew I was there, but my presence didn’t seem to bother them. It was a real thrill.
The proud parents to be: December 2019.
Sitting on eggs:
First image of a chick.
Adult bringing home a meal:
Heading out to hunt:
One stays with the nest, one hunts. Then they trade off:
Getting bigger, and changing color. At this point, both adults leave to hunt. One stayed in a nearby tree on occasion, keeping watch:
At this point, it was the beginning of March. I was trying to keep a closer eye on the nest as I knew they would fledge (learn to fly and leave the nest) soon. One day I came out, and the nest was empty. I sat in my usual spot for hours, but no sign of the adults or the juveniles. Had something happened to them? There was evidence of brush cutting in the area, and I was afraid that it had spooked the juveniles out of the nest before they could fly, and predators got them on the ground.
A few days later I came back, and waited some more. The nest was empty. I scanned the skies but there was nothing. Until…far off in the distance I caught a glimpse of one large bird, then another. As they got closer I could see it was the juvenile eagles. Apparently they saw me too, as they headed directly for me and circled overhead!
I like to think they were stopping by to say hello after watching me watch them for so many weeks. More likely, they were just curious youngsters. Regardless, I was ecstatic to see that they had made it.
Here they are, a new generation of majestic Bald Eagles.
Just another day in Paradise. I was standing by “The Eagle Tree” at Magnolia Plantation watching a perched eagle. Soon, a second showed up. Magnolia’s mated resident pair checking things out on a beautiful March morning.
As we stood there, one of the Garden crew’s Gator backfired as she started it. The Female took off screeching. I missed the shot because I was trying to figure out who was shooting at us! lol
Once I figured out what happened, I looked up in time to see the male calling her to come back. She made a loop and landed back on the same tree, giving us a good opportunity for a landing shot. What gorgeous birds.
Bear Island is a huge wildlife management area in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Here are almost 12,000 acres of marsh, forest, and acreage planted for wildlife.
I spent a lot of time exploring there last year in the second half of summer. I wanted to find some new areas for photography, and I did manage–through a lot of walking and biking–to find some spots which are now favorites, and offer a good alternative to closer areas like Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.
Today was going to be a scouting trip. The area had been shut down since September of last year for hunting and to offer a resting area for migrating waterfowl. It recently reopened and I was anxious to make acquaintance again with one of the best birding areas in South Carolina.
My hope for today would be to locate some migrating ducks, Bald Eagles, Osprey an assortment of shorebirds. I came home with 994 photos. Of course, many of those would be duplicates, long distance shots, poor lighting, and out of focus. I was going to be satisfied if 3%–30 images–were good enough to keep.
I was out of the house by 6:00, grabbing a banana and a granola bar for the 50 minute trip. Dark overcast and a 20-25 mile an hour wind greeted me outside. I thought to myself, “Mother Nature is going to be in our face today!” I don’t let weather keep me home. In coastal South Carolina, it changes rapidly. And, the photography is always a second priority anyway. Just being out there is first.
First stop: Duck Alley.
Duck Alley is a long impoundment that slices through a marsh on it’s way to an island. I have had some phenomenal luck with ducks, eagles, and ospreys in addition to Pelicans, Herons, and Egrets.
As I exited my car in the parking area, a large dark shape passed by me overhead. At first, I thought it was a vulture. But the wings never formed the classic “V” shape above its body, so I brought up my camera. Yep, Bald Eagle. A quick shot showed me what I would be up against on this low light morning.
I walked onto the dike and immediately saw large white birds in the air, with some darker ones mixed in. Adult and juvenile White Ibis, too far for a shot. I stopped about half way down the dike, and sat down to see if the flight path had changed from last year.
Waterfowl and other birds have a habit of using the same flight paths in an out of a marsh. It’s like our roads. Last year, the best place to be was about 3/4 of the way down the dike. In ten minutes today, I could see that hadn’t changed.
Walking west, a Bald Eagle flew between me and the island. If I had been in place, I would have had a shot. I kept my eye on it as I set up my chair in front of a large shrub. Eventually, he started working his way back toward me, coming closer and closer. There was no doubt he could see me, but sometimes they just don’t care, and soar right over top of people. This one came close. The sky had lightened some, but not enough for a great shot.
I spent about an hour on Duck Alley without seeing much else other than ducks that were too far away. I had three other spots to hit, and it was time to move on. On the walk to my truck, some white Pelicans cruised overhead.
Next up was The Drive at Bear Island, a circular driving tour by Mary’s Pond, a popular spot with photographers. It’s my least favorite spot here, primarily because it can get really crowded with people. On a cloudy and windy week day though, I wasn’t expecting a lot of company. Some more White Pelicans and Snowy Egrets on Mary’s Pond.
And, the always beautiful Great Blue Heron. The light was picking up now, with patches of blue sky peeking through the clouds.
White Ibis, adults and juveniles.
And, the ever present gulls.
No Osprey in the nest by the DNR headquarters. Too early maybe? Next on the list was what I call the Spoonbill marshes. Three smaller bodies of water where I have seen Roseate Spoonbills, and Shoveler ducks (also called Spoonbills). No Rosies today, but a few Northern Shovelers.
The Spoonbills are filter feeders. They move along like underwater lawn mowers, filtering water through their bills to get food. Apparently the little Snowy didn’t know that, as he hurried over to see what great treats could be found, only to walk away disappointed.
Also, I often see Avocet here. Beautiful and interesting birds, especially in flight. There appear to be some differences between the pair; whether that is male/female or a different sub species, I don’t know.
Let’s head to Blue Wing Pass, so named because I was here during the fall duck migration last year while hundreds of Blue Wing Teal passed over my head. This shot is from September 2019.
This areas consists of four ponds and a canal, intersected by impoundments. I saw a large raft of ducks on one, but too far away to even identify. More Avocets, and a Snowy working for food. These small egrets shake their leg back and forth to stir food from the marsh bottom.
On another pond, I see three large dark birds feeding together. Glossy Ibis! I take a shot but will try to get closer.
Sneaking down the dike behind some tall marsh grass, I realize the grass is so thick I will not be able to get an image without spooking the birds. I don’t intentionally flush birds in order to get a shot, so I decided to retreat. As I turned around, another Glossy Ibis explodes into the air not twenty yards to my left, taking with it the other three. While focusing on the trio, I had completely missed the single. The best laid plans…
As I come to the end of the driving tour, I see a familiar brown shape in the sky, sporting a white rump. Harrier hawk! Quickly exiting the vehicle, my camera comes up, hoping for a shot. The hawk sees me, of course, and refuses to come close. They always do. But, I get an image that is better than any others I have taken to date.
Time to head to my last stop, Osprey Heaven. On the way, another marsh holds some Tundra Swans, and I get some close shots. These birds have a long trip to their summer home on the Arctic Tundra.
Arriving at Osprey Heaven, I find that the mosquitoes are back already. Soon, I also discover that my mosquito repellent from last year is not up to the task. This could be rough.
I chose that name for this place, because last August I spent a lot of time here watching four, sometimes five Osprey at one time hunt this marsh, located in the boondocks of Bear Island. It’s a three mile hike round trip. I normally take a bike, but after a camera disaster late last year in which I fell off said bike and onto my camera–breaking the telephoto lens completely off the camera mount–I have since eschewed that mode of transportation in the field.
Some Osprey pics from last year. These birds are very curious, and often flew over to stare at me from a low altitude when I arrived at the marsh. I also discovered they miss fish more often than they catch one.
No Osprey today. Walking around the marsh, I hear a lot of duck-speak in the marsh, and close, but I can’t see any birds. Suddenly, a dozen Mottled Ducks burst forth from behind some rushes. Soon I realize one is left on the water, talking up a storm. That normally means one of two possibilities: Either she is wounded, or she has a nest near by. They did have some lottery duck hunts here, so I’m hoping it’s the latter instead of the former.
Her brethren continue to circle as she calls to them, apparently trying to get them to come back. I take a quick shot and move on so they can be reunited.
The chatter of a Kingfisher freezes me in place. Just as I locate it, the bird takes flight, landing on a distant trunk. A bit too far, but the first one of the day so I take it.
To my left, a large gator slips into the water and watches me.
Time to head back to the truck. A mile and half to go, and my bad feet and knees are protesting. I’m going to have to figure out a way to carry my camera rig on a bike safely if I want to come back to Osprey Heaven. And, of course I do.
A Fiddler crab wields it’s weapon on the walk out.
Up ahead I see three Terns working another marsh. Lots of fun to attempt captures of their hunting.
The water impact shot won’t happen today, as there is marsh grass between the bird and me. It is the most difficult shot to achieve. The camera, in auto focus mode, follows the bird to the water. When impact happens and the water erupts, the focus now becomes the water and not the bird. I am determined to get a clean shot of this, but it will take some work. It seems to me the solution is either a greater depth of field, or maybe even using manual focus.
Getting close to the vehicle, I hear an eagle chirping up above. It is circling and hunting. Not very close, but I don’t pass up the opportunity.
Up ahead, the last marsh, a huge one. I can see a raft of ducks through the brush. Pintails and Widgeons. I take some shots and would love to get closer, but the last thing I want to do is flush a large flock of feeding and resting migrating waterfowl. So I settle for what I can get. Pintails are uncommon where I am from, and I am happy to get these shots.
Almost to the vehicle, but one more bird in the sky. Osprey? Nope, another Northern Harrier, first hunting the thickets and then flying directly over the raft of ducks. I am positive they will take to the sky at the sight of it, but they only peep a bit louder and stay put. The hawk passes without incident.
And that’s a wrap! What a morning. None of these will make the annual calendar, but I have seen a lot of variety and am pleased with that. My scouting trip is a success, and the next trip will focus on one special spot at a time.
Some recent images from Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.
Thanks for the support and kind words, Snakeman!
It may be January, but a new season is springing in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. It was a beautiful morning for a walk at Magnolia Plantation, and to take in the birds starting their cycle of life.
Great Blue Heron nest building. I could watch them for hours.
He gathers the sticks, brings them to the nest, hands them to her and she weaves them into place.
And then start over again until the nest is to her liking.
The camera sure likes these big, colorful birds. And the light was perfect this morning.
Some other feathered friends as well…