As the warm spring days gradually lengthen, the synchronicity of nature produces a fascinating natural phenomena along the Pacific coast.
The protagonist of this real life drama is the innocuous but gallant male midshipman known to some as the remarkable humming fish and to others as the unattractive, bottom-dwelling, bullhead. Officially, it is Porichthys notatus, a member of the toadfish family. The name, midshipman, is attributed to the lines of photophores on the sides and bottom of the fish resembling the rows of buttons on the midshipman uniform.
During the winter the midshipman dwells in the depths of the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to the Gulf of California. While it may look prehistoric it has a very sophisticated method of attracting prey by emitting light from its photophores. As the long, dark days of winter finally give way to spring the midshipman begins its treacherous journey to the shallow waters of its nesting grounds in locations like the Puget Sound or Salish Sea. Those that survive the gauntlet of seals, sea lions, and other aquatic predators must face a gamut of other life threatening challenges when they reach the intertidal zone. At the nesting grounds the male competes with other males for the best nest sites where it excavates a cave under a rock and proceeds to hum for a mate. The humming may be annoying to humans but critical to the male midshipman for attracting females. The sound is generated by rapid vibration of the sonic bladder and in unison with many others the volume has caused many a sleepless night for houseboaters and shoreline dwellers.
The female comes in with the high tide and enters the cave of a suitable male where she lays her eggs then leaves with the outgoing tide. The proud male is left behind for up to two months to fertilize and guard the eggs until they hatch and are able to survive on their own. Many of the nests are under seaweed in shallow tide-pools at low tide and some are even above the low tide line and dry, but that is not a problem because the midshipman can also breathe out of water. Unfortunately, it is also a time when it is most vulnerable to host of avian predators.
Life seems good for the midshipman as the males are busy wooing females and the females are busy searching for the most attractive males, but as the tide recedes many are trapped in tide pools and even on land with nothing but a thin veil of seaweed for protection. Above the flimsy curtain the enemy is lurking. Hundreds of Bald Eagles wait patiently on the protruding tide-pool rocks and the surrounding trees. The slightest movement in a tide pool or under beached seaweed betrays the midshipman’s presence. For the eagles it is tantamount to catching fish in a barrel – a veritable seafood free-for-all as eagles soar, dive, and snatch from the treetops while others simply reach down or jump in from the rocks to grab their helpless prey. Great Blue Herons land in the tide-pools to join the smorgasbord, and even the crows get into the act as they have learned to pull back the seaweed in search of the helpless land-locked fish.
The slaughter of the midshipman is relentless, cruel, and tragic, but, fortunately, many survive. It is a natural drama that has been played out for centuries, and it is a critical part of the circle of life for some species. The abundance of midshipman has ensured its survival for its next generation, but it has also given life to hundreds of resident baby Bald Eagles and provided sustenance for the many migrants preparing for their journeys to their summer ranges. For the Great Blue Heron and Northwestern Crow the midshipman is not as essential, but there seems to be sufficient abundance for all.
PLEASE NOTE: THIS IS A REVISED AND UPDATED VERSION OF A PREVIOUS ARTICLE . FOR MORE PHOTOS GO TO JOURNAL 434.
For the photographer, midshipman time offers unparalleled opportunities for exciting and excellent eagle photography, but it is also extremely challenging and frustrating. Not surprisingly, weather is a critical factor as well as time of day. On a bright, sunny day harsh shadows and heat shimmer are major obstacles. On a cool, dull day it's difficult to get the crisp, clear definition of the eagle and midshipman. Then there are the eagles. In the first place they are are difficult to approach, and when you are close enough you are not always rewarded. I have sat for up to an hour focused on a perched eagle and all the eagle did was move its head a few times. Fortunately, if you are persistent and patient the planets will align, and as Pete says, you might get your award-winner.
May 11 was an iffy day. It was humid and the clouds varied from dark to light overcast depending on your location. I was hesitant about going but decided it was better than staying home to do chores. On arrival to the beach I was optimistic. There were a multitude of eagles perched at various locations along the beach. My wife, Kathy, headed east where she counted 110 eagles. I headed west and tallied 95. We never counted the many that were perched on the trees. I guessed that there were at least 250 eagles in total. With the thin overcast clouds lighting was excellent, and with the moderate temperature there was no heat shimmer. I focused on a group of eagles about 100 meters down the beach and was pleased with the relative clearness of the shot considering the distance and crop.
Before I headed down the beach I was distracted by a very busy Great Blue Heron standing in the water just below the tide line. The shiny reflection from the long, thin fish it was catching said "sandlance."
It took about 2 minutes to get as close as I wanted, and by then the heron had caught and eaten about 6 fish, and it was still dining. It would kneel with its head just a few inches from the water with its head cocked and with a deft thrust into the water it would retrieve its catch. There must have been an abundance of sandlance because it would often catch two at a time. In the past I have also seen the eagles catching sandlance which were spawing in the sand.
Heading west it didn't take long to spot some eagle activity. An eagle had just caught a midshipman, but was now in the crosshairs of another eagle. Kleptoparasitism is alive and well in the eagle community but only happens occasionally. I wonder if it mainly occurs with mated pairs and immatures chasing their parents.
Sharing is not part of the eagle's vocabulary at this time of year. It's every bird for itself. Most of the eagles are migrants fattening up before they head north to their summer breeding and feeding ranges. I'm estimating that 75% are migrants and 25% are local nesting eagles.
The chase was on and as the eagles fell out of camera range I carried on, but I don't think the parasitic eagle was successful.
The two common hunting strategies for the eagle are rock perching and tree perching. My main strategy for photographing the eagles is to approach as close as I can then sit and wait for the eagle to catch a fish or leave. Either way, if you are ready you can sometimes get some decent shots. I say "sometimes" because the eagle either flies to the side or away from you. It rarely flies toward you which is what you want. When it flies to the side you have some opportunities. When it flies away, you just get the butt shot. As mentioned, you can sometimes sit for an hour waiting for some activity. In about 70% of the cases I have been rewarded with some fishing activity, but they don't always translate into a decent photo.
After a lengthy perch of about 30 minutes this eagle finally spotted some movement in the water. The midshipman was no match for the razor-sharp talons of the eagle.
The grab and lift-off is a quick motion and easy to miss if you are not ready.
There are many dining options for the eagle. A nearby rock with a seaweed table cloth was an easy choice.
Sashimi on the rocks - all that is missing is a delicious wine pairing. How about a 2016 Pinot Grigio from the Blue Grouse Winery in Duncan - goes well with any light, flaky, mild-flavored fish.
Down the hatch. This was just an appetizer for more to come.
Another popular dining option is a branch at the tree house cafe. The main advantage is a little more privacy for those who don't wish to dine in public view for the whole world to see.
Many of the eagles (25%?) are actually resident nesting eagles with babies and co-parents in the nest to feed. According to Doug Carrick's eagle cam studies, midshipman comprised 70% of the baby eagles' diet. It is common to see an eagle catch a midshipman and fly across Baynes Sound to Denman or Hornby Island.
By far the most exciting event is the attack from the treetop perch. It usually starts with a slow circular glide to pinpoint the location of the fish and plan the best angle of approach.
With the fish locked on its radar eagle goes into its dive. We're only talking about a split second for the next series of event so be ready - make sure your camera is set at 1000 ISO or more. Even if you are totally prepared, it is easy to miss the shot.
Target in sight, talons ready ...
With the catch firmly in the grasp it should be dinner time.
Just checking. It looked so tantalizing that the eagle was tempted to take a bite while in flight.
Ambush! Suddenly out of nowhere another eagle tried to pirate the fish.
It made a grab for the fish but got the leg instead.
It was a close call, but the dinner was saved. There are freeloaders in every society that prefer to steal from others instead of earning their own food.
No fuss, no bother - This eagle didn't even have to get its toes wet. Sometimes the midshipman gets trapped above the water line and is just protected by a bit of seaweed. The eagle simply grabbed this one with its bill. Unfortunately, with the heat shimmer this photo is not as sharp as it could have been.
It's not often that the eagle walks towards you, but this was a rare occasion and it did help to lessen the heat shimmer.
When an eagle decides that you are not a threat it will allow for a closer experience. I was fortunate to get a reasonably close-up shot of while the eagle was dining. However, most are quite wary and will fly away immediately.
The eagles are very patient and will sit for an extended period waiting for an opportunity to catch a fish, but they can only wait so long. If you're lucky one will land on a rock close to you.
Once again I was lucky to see one flying towards me.
I was ready and caught the whole approach and landing sequence.
There were 7 eagles on this rock as I tried to get close enough for the shot, but two departed before I was ready. My wife and Jim Murray got the shot with 7 eagles.
Besides the eagle, there are three other avian predators that threaten the midshipman and not surprisingly one of them is the Great Blue Heron. The herons aren't fussy and their tide-pool catches also include gunnel fish, sculpins, and anything else that moves.
To my surprise the second one is the Northwestern Crow. I observed a couple of crows for about an hour and they caught seven fish.
The crows were adept at catching the midshipman, but they are very wasteful consumers. They simply pierce the belly and eat the liver and/or the caviar and leave the rest. Their excuse is that they don't have the tools to eat the rest of the fish. It is actually easier for them to leave the rest of the fish is left to rot on the beach while they search for another one.
The third avian predator is the Glaucous-winged Gull, but it seems to be a non-factor here possibly because of its mating season and/or the large density of eagles.
Bald Eagle ballet.
Getting down and dirty.
Not all eagles have white heads. Meet Junior.
Some orders are served with a side salad.
Dinner is on the way.
You have your choice of waterfront tables.
Just another dinner at the five star seaside restaurant.
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