If I just wanted pretty pictures of Great Blue Herons and Bald Eagles, I would save myself a long trip and sleep in because there are lots of herons and eagles nearby. Besides the sheer number of birds, the greatest appeal of Big Beef Creek is the interaction between the birds, mainly between the herons and the eagles, something I’ve never found anywhere else.
Herons know the best places to fish and tend to congregate in those spots, all the while keeping the proper distance from each other. When an eagle harasses them, the herons will either move on or fly off while dropping their catch so that the eagle will stop its harassment. It gets much more interesting, though, when a heron decides to stand up for itself, which happens more often than you might think.
Though it lacks the Eagle’s powerful talons, the Great Blue Heron is a large bird with a powerful beak that eats almost anything it can get down its throat. It’s used to being at the top of the food chain and won’t easily give up its catch, though few will continue to stand their ground if an eagle is persistent.
Although I’ve never seen a Bald Eagle actually hit a Great Blue Heron with its talons, they use them to intimidate the herons, to get them to drop their catch. More often than not this drama takes place a long ways from the road/shore and it’s hard to capture it, but that hasn’t stop me from trying.
It’s hard to predict exactly how a particular heron will react to an eagle. Some, like the one on the left, will get its feathers up and try to intimidate the eagle. Others, like the one on the right, will immediately try to fly away, while others, like the one in the middle, seem relatively indifferent to the birds swooping by them.
Other times all the herons in a particular fishing spot will stand up to the eagle, though this seems to happen more often if it is an immature eagle.
Even with a powerful lens it’s difficult to capture these scenes. You have to have a wide enough angle to fit all the action in, and it’s hard to get the camera focused on the moving birds, not the background.
When you’re closer, more often than not you sacrifice the overall scene for a closeup of the battles.
Occasionally you get lucky, though, and are able to capture these confrontations up close like I did here. In this case, the immature eagle hovered, mid-air over the heron, which had just chased away several other heron, and was refusing to be intimidated, though in the end it did fly away until the eagle left.
Of course, being “lucky” usually means spending long hours waiting for the right moment. The casual visitor would probably never see an incident like this, much less be ready to capture it with his camera. After another fifty hours or so on scene I might be lucky enough to capture another shot like this.