Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

The Eagle Hunter

A cormorant pops out from the icy water of the Connecticut River, like a Trident submarine surfacing from the ocean depths. Beads of water shed quickly from its glossy black plumage, and the bronze body of the smallmouth bass held tightly between its beak, sparkles in the morning sunlight.

The bird grips the fish tightly until it stops squirming, and then gently tosses it into the air. Cormorants swallow fish head first, and the bird makes several unsuccessful attempts to orient its breakfast snack. Unaware that it is being watched by the eyes of two equally stealthy hunters, the cormorant continues to fumble with its meal.

Without a sound, an adult eagle descends from the sky at a speed approaching 40 miles per hour. Its outstretched wings, measuring over six feet from tip to tip, slow the bird’s high altitude descent, so that its two inch long razor sharp yellow talons can snatch the fish from the cormorant, before the unsuspecting bird can mount a retreat.

The second hunter starts firing the instant the eagle drops from the sky, and continues shooting as the bird ascends with its stolen meal. The camera’s shutter clicks away at the rate of eight frames per second. The eagle, with vision four times greater than man’s, is so focused on an easy meal that it fails to see the photographer nestled on an outcropping of rock along the river’s bank.

Outfitted with a super telephoto camera lens, and dressed in camouflage, Tom Tolla of Guilford has been “hunting” Connecticut’s largest raptor for the past year and a half. Capturing photographs of eagles, while they exhibit their most basic survival tactics, is his reward for the countless early morning hours he has spent along the river bank.

Named for the English word “balde,” which means “white” rather than “hairless,” the bald eagle has been our national symbol since 1782. Approximately, 100 bald eagles return to Connecticut each December to escape from their frozen feeding grounds in Canada and Maine. The birds live along the banks of the Connecticut and Housatonic Rivers until departing in mid-March.

This 34 inch high bird weighs about ten pounds, and feeds primarily on fish, but will eat birds, small mammals, and carrion. The eagle is confined to hunt along the forest’s edge and in open water because its massive wingspan does not allow for easy maneuvering in densely wooded areas. For its large size, it is surprising that an adult eagle can not carry a load greater than four pounds!

Once described by Benjamin Franklin as “a bird of bad moral character,” the bald eagle is the top predator in the sky, and as such doesn’t hesitate to make its living by stealing food from smaller birds.

The eagle builds a large, flat-topped nest 7-8 foot wide, situated in trees anywhere from 10 to 150 feet above ground. The nest is made from sticks, and lined with moss and grass. It is a formidable structure. The largest eagle’s nest on record weighed over two tons.

A nesting pair of eagles typically lays two eggs in March, but the number of eggs is dependant on the availability of food. The young will fledge in four months. When they leave the nest, the eagles are nearly full size, but will not obtain their characteristic coloring for several years. Eagles experiences their highest mortality rate during the first year, as they learn to fly, feed and then persevere through winter. Nearly 50% don’t survive.

First year eagles have brown feathers, brown eyes and brown beaks. An abundance of white mottling appears during year two. The beak and eyes start turning yellow, and the head begins to lighten at three years. At this stage, eagles are often mistaken as osprey, though the osprey is considerably smaller. Year four birds resemble dirty adults. Their eyes and beak have lightened, and their head is mostly white. Considered an adult at age five, the mature bird has a completely white head and tail, yellow eyes, beak and talons.

Pesticides such as DDT, along with rampant habitat destruction, decimated the bald eagle population throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s. The bird was declared an endangered species in 1973, but extensive conservation efforts have allowed the eagle to make a remarkable come back. In 1995, the eagle’s status was downgraded from endangered to threatened, and it appears that in 2006, the bird will finally be delisted altogether.

Large sheets of melting ice flow down the tidal river. Occasionally, eagles and waterfowl hitch a ride on the translucent boats. From a distance, the birds appear to walk on water.

Along the bank, broken pieces of ice collect; forced ashore by waves. The ragged chunks grind at each other, and the crackling sound masks Tolla’s movement as he rises to momentarily stretch his legs. Spotting a dark object in the distant sky, Tolla gets back into position, readies his camera, and then unleashes another burst of shots, hoping to capture another beautiful eagle fly-by.