Each Thanksgiving, I visit the wildlife refuges and agricultural fields of the northern Sacramento Valley, traveling alone. My annual overnight retreat is always a sensory journey of awe and wonder—watching and listening, taking in the chorus of thousands of geese and ducks that winter in the region, feeling the weather on my face that ranges from subfreezing wind to rain to warm sun.
I’ve shared stories and multiple photos here of the many waterfowl I’ve encountered. While they’re the attention-getters, their presence draws other migratory birds that have also headed away from the snowy north—the raptors that feed on them along with other prey, small mammals and songbirds.
It’s easy to follow the flight path of a bald eagle. The first sign of their presence is a sound like a motor, the whir of hundreds of simultaneous wing beats when a flock of snow geese lifts off at the sight of the predator above. The eagle can’t catch them in mid-air, and they are safe as they loudly honk in alarm. Spotting the eagle in that chaos is a challenge, but even when I can’t find the eagle, it’s easy to figure out the bird’s travel path across the flat landscape as flock after flock of white geese take flight, with the previous group settling down again after the danger has passed. When bald eagles are hunting, they will spot the individual goose that is a weak flyer, and eventually circle back to snatch the bird when it’s resting on land or water.
I typically see at least one bald eagle on my outings, inevitably with a poor view—far away in the air stirring up the waterfowl, perched in a distant tree, or munching on prey way across a field. Either that or obscured by branches with only a butt visible, or silhouetted directly in front of glaring sunlight.
On a previous Thanksgiving trip to Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, I had an exceptional sighting. On the auto tour route that requires staying in the car, a bald eagle was perched on a dead branch right next to the road. The bird was in a perfect pose and undisturbed when I stopped to stare. Through the open window, I snapped the photo at the top of this post with my pocket camera.
Red-tailed hawks are abundant in California in late fall and winter. They perch in the open where they can scan the landscape for rodents, but they’re skittish. It’s been hard to observe and photograph them at close range. Even when they were high in a tree, and I stayed in the car at a distance, they would fly away as soon as I stopped. Disrupting birds’ behavior is not a good practice, and it motivated me to upgrade to a camera with a more powerful zoom lens that I used this year. I can now enjoy watching red-tails as long as I want, with a magnified view and far enough away that they’re comfortable.
My Thanksgiving trip this year included a particularly magical encounter. I slowly drove the one-way route at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, where I typically travel below the maximum speed of 15. I spotted a bird of prey in a leafless tree ahead on my right. Red-tail? No, the bird was substantially larger. Not having the white head and tail, I assumed I was seeing a juvenile bald eagle, mostly brown before the adult plumage that would come later.
I slowed down to avoid spooking the bird. I stopped and looked upward to the right through the windshield. Yes, a juvenile, but not a bald eagle. I gasped as I was treated to a rare sighting in these parts, a bird I’ve seen just a handful of times in my life. Right beside me, closer than I’ve ever been, was a golden eagle.
(If the photo below is blurry, it’s a tech problem. Click on it to see a sharp image.)
It’s amazing what contortions I can put myself through to photograph a bird that takes my breath away. The eagle was to my right and when I was directly beneath the tree she was perched in, I couldn’t see her at all. My car has a manual transmission and I leaned across to the open window on the passenger side, trying not to impale myself on the stick shift. Somehow I managed to get my lens out the window and point it upward while my body was still sideways. Unperturbed, the bird looked in my direction. I clicked the shutter from my wobbly position and hoped for the best.
The golden eagle’s species name references the appearance of the head and neck feathers. I watched the shimmering as the feathers reflected the sunlight, and silently took in her presence. I’m still thanking my lucky stars for the opportunity to share her company.
Update: It turns out that I saw a young bald eagle, not a golden. Oh well, she was still a beautiful bird.