In a matter of seconds I got lucky and witnessed a pair of Golden Eagles involved in a “death spiral”, where the eagles lock talons together and spiral towards the ground.  During events like this time seems to slow down for a wildlife photographer, reaching for their camera, getting the bird in the field of view, focusing, and setting exposure — while the exciting behavior unfolds quickly.  This time, however, things all came together!

Driving back from winter photography of wolves in Yellowstone and the Tetons my friend and I were treated to many sitings of Golden Eagles.  After a while we would simply look at them and not bother stopping to get photos.  Then I saw a pair of Golden Eagles circling each other and suggested we pull over.  This is when the “slow motion” kicked in.

Relative to the time window to capture the behaviors of the wildlife it takes a long time to pull off the road and start taking photos.  I normally do not enjoy photographing wildlife in this fashion — in “chase mode”. Instead I prefer a wait and see what shows up approach — which allows for a non-rushed “panic” shot.  It does pay though to always have my camera ready and in close reach.

As we moved to the side of a narrow tertiary road in rural Utah I grabbed my camera with a big (600 mm ) lens on it. As I put a foot on the ground outside the truck I saw the eagles engage in the famous, but rare, “death spiral”.  In slow motion I saw the autofocus lock onto the spinning eagles as they spiraled in a circle, talons locked, and screaming towards the ground.  Through the lens I noticed the moon in the background against a deep blue sky.  In a bold move I stopped down my aperture to increase the depth of field and get the spiraling eagles and the moon in the background.  How cool would that be !!  Unfortunately the moon was only in the field-of-view for a millisecond.

Then it was over.  My two photographer friends and I looked at each other in awe.  The eagles did not hit the ground during their spiral, they disconnected about 50 feet off the ground and then flew off screaming at each other.  What an experience this was!

Bald Eagles lock talons in a “Cartwheel Display” during courtship and spiral towards the ground releasing at the last moment before hitting the ground.  I am very interested in the motivation behind this behavior.  Is this a test to see if your potential partner is going to be fully committed?

Golden Eagles lock talons and tumble through the air only rarely though, and this is thought to be mostly an aggressive behavior rather than related to courtship.  We were lucky to witness this.

Photo: Incoming Golden Eagle!  How would you like to have this guy coming at you? (c) Ed MacKerrow

Golden Eagles are one of the largest predatory birds in North America.  As young teenager backpacking in the High Sierra I witnessed a team of two Golden Eagles killing a deer on the side of mountain.  The screams from the deer drew my attention and then I saw the huge eagles taking turns dive bombing the deer.

New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado are where I usually see these beautiful eagles.  I especially like the coloring of the immature Golden Eagles, with their white accents and patches against dark brown.

I am not sure if I will ever get to see an eagle “death spiral” again in real life.  That is ok though since this memory is etched for good.

Photo: An immature Golden Eagle soaring over Northern New Mexico. (c) Ed MacKerrow

Photo:  Tight crop from the Golden Eagle spiral showing how the eagles are holding onto one talon, while spinning together towards the ground. (c) Ed MacKerrow

From the Cornell Birds of North America website, the following excerpt discusses this rare behavior in Golden Eagles:

“Invader often responds by rolling over and presenting talons to the aggressor. Rarely, lock talons and tumble through the air; sometimes fall several revolutions and other times tumble to the ground before releasing grip ( Ellis 1979 ). Talon-grappling probably most often an aggressive encounter, rather than courtship; 2 adult females in Montana locked talons in the air, fell to the ground, and fought for >2 h in what appeared to be a territorial conflict. An observer broke up fight before either eagle was killed ( Harmata 1982 ).”