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The Osprey Hunter

What gnarled and wilted heart among us island folk fails to beat a new pace when it senses the staccato shrieks of bald eagles calling from above? We crane, we search and we stare, hoping for a tiny glimpse of the black raptors soaring just above the madrona trees. When we hear the call we know there are two – either a mating pair or a mother and her chick. If we are lucky we see them fly above us for a few seconds, disappearing and reappearing before gliding behind the hilltop or landing in the trees just over there. Then they are gone.

If you are on a slope or a rooftop you may suddenly see one pass close by, wings extended, climbing the breeze to soar silently without flapping. If you are slow to focus your eyes you may not realize what is happening until it is over. Run to grab your camera or keep it by you every second and the result is the same: a rare, blurry photo, hardly even recognizable for the wild beauty it is. It seems impossible to photograph them but there is a place on Vashon where the patient and stealthy photographer can find bald eagles every day, and where they sometimes pose for the occasional photo.

Eagles may take the farmer’s chicken or even the odd puppy, but they’re great fishers and they know where the fish are. If you watch them from just offshore, say in a kayak, you can find them all around the island. The best places are where the fewest houses are, Spring Beach, for instance and other places where people (and especially dogs) are normally absent.

I take my camera whenever I paddle these days, because there might be a great photo just around the bend. If you don’t pack your camera you could see Sasquatch and return with only the tale. The kayak is a wet environment, so you have to protect your investment. I start each trip with the camera in a Pelican Case which is strapped to the kayak deck and only remove it when getting ready to shoot. That’s the best protection I have. Even so, keep upright is the best policy.

Many creatures, including eagles, don’t perceive the silent paddler as a threat. Some do, of course, including herons and deer. Those creatures always watch me warily and dart away whenever I pierce their comfort zone. Dogs see me as entertainment.  But the mighty sky hunter has almost no interest in slow-moving water folks. A mother stoically accompanying her adolescent chick recently let me get close enough to photograph the flecks of color in her iris as she sat quietly on a boulder.

It’s easy to find eagles along the beach, but not so easy to photograph them, so don’t be disappointed if your first try doesn’t work out. If you’re new to kayaking, or even if you’re not, you’ll find that the first challenge is controlling the craft. That’s because you can’t. You will have two hands on the camera, and you need two hands to paddle, so you will be drifting. If you set up properly you will drift toward your subject with the bow of the kayak pointed directly at it. But if you set up wrong or if nature is against you, then you may find yourself drifting away while whirling to present your back to an otherwise willing and beautiful model. If you are especially cursed you may find yourself scraping bottom amidst large and unforgiving barnacle-covered boulders while the tide recedes and the current and wind conspire to nestle you into a place you can never escape from. Don’t be like me: pay attention to your surroundings.

The easiest birds to photograph are sitting patiently at eye level on the beach and stay there good-naturedly assuming a series of interesting and photogenic poses until your flash card is full. But just in case you don’t see any of those, then you might want to scan the tree tops for white feathers. You may find an eagle perched in a tree, possibly only partly visible. But don’t assume it will stay there, because it won’t. Eagles are always looking for action and if you keep your eyes on a tree sitter for a few minutes then something interesting is bound to happen. The mate or an adolescent offspring may show up any time. The tree-sitter may fly straight down right beside you and with a large splash pluck a huge struggling Salmon from the salty Sound. It may even fly directly over your head at low altitude. Make sure your camera is set to shoot multiple frames, because you will not have time to click individual shots. Your challenge is to keep it in the viewfinder, and that is hard enough.

If you are in tune with eagles, then you will recognize the sound that Eagle’s enemy, Crow, makes when he wants Eagle to go somewhere else. Even if you don’t know the sound, you will surely notice the excitement as Crow dive-bombs a tree and screams curses while doing it. Often several crows take part and keep it up until the eagle leaves. This ritual is entertaining to photograph for two reasons. One is the natural drama, of course, especially if you can get a clear photo of both the crow and the eagle. The other reason is that when you are reviewing the photos later you will be surprised to see that the eagle is not tracking the crow, but rather is facing the place where the crow recently was. The eagle’s surprising lack of kung-fu speed probably explains why he eventually just gives up and moves on. It does not explain why the crows sometimes follow him down the beach renew the attack.

The most difficult birds to photograph are the osprey and the kingfisher. Since it is impossible to photograph a kingfisher, no matter what you do, I gave up on that long ago and now just concentrate on the osprey. These raptors never land on the beach, only in tree tops, so when not flying they are too distant to photograph. In a perverse way, that makes the kayak the best platform for osprey photography, if only because there is really very little else. Look for the white head or the characteristic flapping, then set up near the tree. It will fly again soon. If you are very lucky, the osprey will fly or hunt near enough to your kayak so that you can get a clear shot. If not, paddle after it and try again. Over the years I’ve taken hundreds of pictures of osprey, most of them worse than worthless. But once in a while I do get a good one.

On the First Friday of September “Books By The Way” next to Café Luna will begin showing Biffle French’s photographs of Vashon Island shore birds. All the photos were taken from a kayak and so they offer a different perspective on some of these beautiful but difficult-to-photograph birds. Included in the collection are bald eagles, blue herons, Caspian terns, osprey and cormorants.