A Bald Eagle Flight
from Flapping to Soaring

at Bald Eagle State Park, Pennsylvania
March 19, 2005


After seeing a bald eagle in the far distance while on Tussey Mountain, Sue and I were both very curious about seeing one closer. We were told that there was a nesting pair at Bald Eagle State Park (BESP). (According to an article by Mark Nale in the Centre Daily Times, the nesting pair are as recent as 2003 and had their first successful young in 2004.)

Yesterday, it was very quiet at BESP during the morning, although flight after flight of numerous tundra swans passed overhead. I was photographing them when a park ranger drove over and got out of his vehicle. He told us that one of the bald eagles was perched just out of our sight. I went where he directed, and sure enough, a huge bald eagle was perched on the top of a bare tree.

Between photographs, I got within 250 feet or so of him (or her) and sat down on a park bench. After forty-five minutes of my taking photos of him sitting, preening, and stretching, Sue and I decided to leave. He could be sitting all day. But as we were leaving, he took off.

At first he flew beneath the tree line but then headed toward open sky.

The first two photos aren't particularly sharp, as I was desperately trying to reach camera focus; however, they're good demonstrations of an eagle flapping. The first is a rear view.
Rear view of bald eagle flap
The second shows a full body and flap.
Bald eagle flapping
He apparently reached a favored altitude, because he settled his wings in a sharp V (or dihedral).
Bald eagle V, or dihedral
His circles weren't directly over us, and I had alternate views of his stomach and back.
Bald eagle V, or dihedral
As he went higher in the sky, the wide V began to relax.
Bald eagle flattening his V.
This one was right before soar proper.
Bald eagle almost at soar
The last photo of this sequence shows a classic eagle soar.
Bald eagle classic soar
The first bald eagle I ever saw in the wild was a little over a week ago. I had photographed a very distant bird on Tussey Mountain and didn't think much of it until, when Sue and I were leaving the hawk watch that day, Chuck Widmann asked whether we had seen the bald eagle.

At home, I inspected the photos (enlarged to 200 percent), but I couldn't decide. Fortunately, Dan Omabalski (of the Tussey Mountain Spring Hawkwatch) offered to try to identify the raptor by photo, and I sent him the following image:

Very distant bald eagle

Here's his diagnosis:
    The bird you have a pic of, is definitely a bald eagle. Pictures 3 and 5 (counting from the left) both show that the bird holds its wings very flat, rather unlike a turkey vulture which holds its wings in a strong "V" shape, or golden which often holds its wings in a slight "V." A bald eagle's head projects a bit more than 1/2 as far as the tail projects. A golden eagle's head projects less than 1/2 as far as its tail projects (but still has more head projection than a turkey vulture). Many of the pics show a strong head projection, and when in a good profile, this trait is suprisingly distinctive. And of course, as you point out, pics 1 and 2 show a bit of white contrast. And finally, the general look of the wings is clearly eagle, and even more than that, clearly bald eagle.
And that is what sent Sue and me to BESP.

Photo note: I used a Pentax *istD, with the SMC reflex 400-600mm lens at the 600mm end.  

Canoe-kayak eagle watch   |   Spring Hawkwatch at Tussey Mountain

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