Are You a Lucky Duck?

“Frost Smoke” rises above unfrozen ponds surrounding an artesian well.  This fog, sometimes called “steam fog”, forms when cold air moves over warmer saturated air above the water.  The cold air cools the warmer air below the dew point so that it can no longer hold as much water vapor, causing condensation.  The air temperature was -18 deg F.   Sandhill cranes can be seen flying in the distance on this frigid dawn.  Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado.

Our day started at 5:30 am in the cold darkness as we waited for the dawn light to photograph the high altitude San Luis Valley full of 20,000 or more Sandhill Cranes.

When the sun finally rose over the mountains it lit up the valley covered in a fresh blanket of bright white snow.  The light was bright.  Light bounced off the valley floor and underlit the undersides of flying birds so much that they looked white.

During March and April, this huge valley fills with Sandhill Cranes.  The cranes stopover on their migration from their wintering grounds to the south, like the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  During their stay in the San Luis Valley, they reinforce their lifelong pair bonding through an elegant dance.  The number of cranes this year was phenomenal.  Estimates of 20,000 cranes were present.  Huge flocks of Canada Geese and Northern Pintails shared the frozen fields with the cranes.

The day warmed up to a balmy 14 deg F.  Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, and Prairie Falcons intermittently soared above preying on the masses of waterfowl.  Normally when an eagle appeared the valley floor erupted with thousands of birds taking off.  The sounds of thousands of wings flapping accompanied by the warning calls of cranes, geese, and ducks were ominous.

On this chilly day, the cranes seemed to be less wary when an eagle was present, although every bird in the valley seems to know when an eagle shows up.

Below, I show a harrowing sequence of photos as a Golden Eagle dives on a duck.

A golden eagle at the start of its high-speed dive towards the crowd of cranes and ducks on the ground.  This composite image is made of multiple photos taken 100 milliseconds apart.  The eagle locks its gaze on its way down to the ground.

It is dangerous to be away from your flock sometimes.   Note the posture and flight/crawling behavior of the duck.  The camera is firing at 10 frames per second.  Imagine how quickly things are happening for the duck.

“Relax, sister. I don’t know the meaning of the word fear!”

— Daffy Duck

Golden Eagle diving on a duck

“Help me, please. I’m too moist and tender to retire.”

                                                                             — Daffy Duck

Wow, that was close!  The Golden Eagle overshoots the duck.  You can see the duck just behind the eagle.

“Ha! Pronoun problems. It’s not ‘shoot you, shoot you’, it’s ‘shoot me, shoot me’. So, go ahead, shoot me, shoot me, Blam!…You’re despicable.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              — Daffy Duck

“Where did that duck go??”

                             – Golden Eagle

“Exit, stage left!”

         — Daffy Duck

“I was just practicing, I could have easily gotten that duck if really wanted to…”

         — Golden Eagle, embarrassed in front of the huge audience

Yes, you were a lucky duck!

The duck was indeed very lucky, and skilled, to escape being a tasty appetizer for the golden eagle.   I have watched golden eagles kill sandhill cranes, snow geese, and yes, a female mule deer!  They are effective hunters.  Although they only weigh about 9 lbs. they can hit with enormous momentum due to the incredible speed of their dive.  Their sharp and powerful talons can easily penetrate and crush prey.

Most of the time the Golden Eagles would circle above the explosion of birds without diving on them.  When one of these enormous golden eagles dove (“stooped”) towards the cranes it blew my mind of the falcon-like speed they moved. Ten years ago I had photographed one golden eagle making three consecutive dives through the crowds of cranes.  When it came close to the ducks they would churn in the shallow ponds to form a chaotic mix of water, feathers, and air.  You can watch some footage of that experience in this video I made (the eagle attacks start at 12:55).

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