I am currently on the Pacific Coast in Raptor Country, leading my annual Hokkaido, Mt. Fuji, Snow Monkey, Landscape, Wildlife Extravaganza. The highlight on this tour is the Battle Royale that breaks out every year between the local wildlife, the White-tailed Eagle and seasonal interlopers the “crass and imposing” - The Steller's Sea Eagle! The battles between the two factions rage so violently that it could be the subject of an Epic Spartan Poem of adventure and hard fought victories on ice packs slick with the blood of the fallen. Young human children and house pets such as dogs and cats are carefully watched when venturing out on their own once the interlopers have arrived and/or The Steller’s Sea Eagle and the White-tailed Eagle’s food supply becomes scarce. There are even fables of children going missing during these periods due to insufficient safety protocols being followed. It's far too common that cats, dogs, and even deer go missing.
On the pack ice and on dry land, I have seen Steller's Sea Eagles and White-tailed Eagles land and huddle for warmth and to shield themselves from the wind chill when needed. However, this sympathetic behavior is purely survival and always a short-lived armistice. As soon as prey becomes their primary focus, or a member of the uneasy cabal catches a fish, a rodent, a rabbit, or any form of edible prey, the battle begins anew. The land campaign becomes an air war. The successful hunters immediately try to land and devour their prey, but on many occasions they take to the air to defend their catch while others seek higher elevations to start their divebombing or a sneak attack from below or a blind spot in the hunter’s line of sight in order to strip the prize away. This is why one of the main events on my Hokkaido Photo Workshop/Tour takes place from the deck of a ship photographing the Steller's Sea Eagle and the White-tailed Eagles.
On some occasions, participants and I are so close to the feeding frenzy, we clearly hear the battle cries of each bird as they exchange barbs and slashes. If the conflicts end with a clear victor, you may be able to hear the stripping of the flesh away from the fish’s carcass and the victorious eagle crushing the bones as it eagerly devours its prize. However, during other conflicts, there is no clear victor, except perhaps for the visiting photographer who captures still images of unforgettable exchanges between two mighty raptor species on the pack ice. On those occasions, the eagles land on the ice and fall into an uneasy but necessary rest bill to bill with their mortal enemies too weary to continue the battle but only for the moment. Once enough energy is regained, the eagles return to the air and the aerial feud resumes.
The Steller’s Sea Eagle is one of the most giant and most fierce diurnal birds on Earth which is why they are such formidable hunters, tracking prey since the age of the dinosaurs. Their plumage is blackish brown-black all over except on the shoulders, rump, tail, thighs, and forehead, which are white. Their HUGE, hooked bill is yellow; when they feed, they do it with raw power. These Eagles are huge, on average, the heaviest raptor on our planet, weighing up to and over 10 kg (22 pounds). They are also tall, measuring up to 94 cm (3 ft) sometimes even taller, with a huge wingspan of up to 250 cm (8 - 9 ft). I have personally photographed a Steller’s Sea Eagle I swear had a wingspan eclipsing 10 ft that I witnessed from my chartered helicopter while I was on assignment capturing landscape shots between Hokkaido and Russia. Suddenly, this enormous blur of white and black strafed us, and both the pilot and I were astounded at the size of the monstrous Steller’s Sea Eagle, which could have been the largest Steller’s Sea Eagle on the planet ever photographed. I asked the eagle to stay still so I break out my measuring tape, but the eagle had places to be and prey to hunt, I assume.
The Steller's Sea Eagle prefers a diet of trout, salmon, or other fish but will eat sea lions or land animals when fishing is slow. The Steller's Sea Eagle is protected by law and is designated as a national treasure in Japan, listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)'s Red List of Endangered Species. Around 5000 remain in the wild, and over 2000, visit Japan every winter. The photo on this newsletter of the Steller's Sea Eagle I photographed on the deck of a ship out of Rausu with the Nikon D850 and Sigma’s 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Sport with Sigma’s 1.4x teleconverter giving me a focal range 168-420mm. Our ship's captain jammed us in the pack ice with the rising sun to our backs; my camera settings were 1/3200th, f/11, ISO 500.