Having hauled out his 30-or-so pounds of camera gear, which includes a massive 400-mm lens and a tripod, for Larry Hubbell it’s another afternoon of patiently looking for the Highway 520 bridge bald eagles.
In the movies and cartoons, eagles are action figures, dramatically swooping in for the kill.
In real life, they mostly sit around, half-hidden on a tree branch, and often just disappear, flying who knows where.
So you hang around and wait. Hubbell figures he’s waited around for several hundred hours.
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“Patience, there is a lot of that,” says Hubbell, who in his other life is a system data guy for Starbucks.
On this afternoon, Hubbell has set up his gear in the Madison Park neighborhood, where East McGilvra Street dead-ends into the eastern razor-wire-topped fence of the Broadmoor Golf Club.
The equivalent of a couple of blocks away, past some houses, on the golf course, is a large evergreen. Near the top, where the trunk forks, is a huge nest that Hubbell figures weighs 500 to 1,000 pounds.
Bald eagles — which grow to nearly 3 feet tall and can have a 7-foot wingspan — make pretty hefty nests out of branches, sticks and even moss, and add to them each season.
It has been two years since Hubbell took up the photographic hobby that has drawn a dedicated following for his blog, Union Bay Watch. These days, he gets more than 6,000 page views a month, up from 40 when it started.
It was his chronicling of “Life after Eddie” last year that got Hubbell his fan base.
Eddie was the bald eagle who used to sit atop a lamppost on the 520 bridge. He had become a common and beloved sight for commuters.
Then, on the morning of Aug. 2, 2011, probably the biggest local news story was that Eddie was killed after flying into the windshield of a Metro bus going across the bridge at 50 mph. The feathers that could be recovered were sent to a repository in Denver to be donated to Native American tribes.
It turned out that many people felt quite passionate about Eddie.
One of his mourners wrote in an op-ed piece for this paper that she’d “never again see his brave little profile on the lamppost. Everything he had survived for so long — civilization, humans — it got him in the end.”
What Hubbell did was tell the story of how Eva, Eddie’s mate, coped and found a new male in her life.
Hubbell named the new guy Albert.
The explanation for that name is that Hubbell, 58, as a teen had enjoyed the TV comedy “Green Acres.” It starred Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor. And that led to a couple of bald eagles named Albert and Eva.
Last year, the pair of eagles had two eaglets; this year, another hatched in early May.
Hubbell took photos and blogged about Albert’s efforts to feed the family:
“Even though he stopped to rest on the way back to the nest, he did not take a single bite to eat. As a matter of fact it seems that all the food that he brings to the nest seems to be fresh and whole. Usually the diet seems to be fish, fish and more fish. Once the food reaches the nest Eva immediately takes over. Whether it is removing feathers or strips of meat … Then she feeds the eaglet, herself and then finally Albert gets a turn. Quite often Albert simply leaves the nest without even eating. He just heads out to find more food.”
Hubbell says watching the eagles has brought vivid detail to what life is like in the wild.
“It is brutal. Only the strong survive,” he says.
And the eagles, says Hubbell, are at the top of the food chain.
“One time I watched an osprey dive 150 feet from the air into the water, catch a fish and then take it up to the light poles by the (University of Washington) baseball field. Then I watched an eagle fly a quarter mile across the bay, and he took the fish away from the osprey, and there was nothing the osprey could do about it,” he remembers.
Colleen Stinson, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Lacey, Thurston County, and a bald-eagle expert, says she likes Hubbell’s blog.
“It was pretty impressive. He has good pictures and has good information,” she says.
Stinson explains why bald eagles have such an emotional impact on people.
The birds no longer are listed as a threatened species in this state but are protected. There are no recent counts of bald eagles in Washington, but a state report says that in 2005 there were 840 nesting pairs, plus an uncounted number of younger birds and birds that didn’t have a nesting territory. The report says it expects the population to stabilize at about 4,400, about half the number here before the arrival of white settlers.
“They are our national symbol. They are big. They are charismatic. They are a very visible species that people can easily see without a spotting scope or binoculars,” says Stinson.
But Hubbell’s blog isn’t just about the 520 bridge eagles.
Most of the photos he takes are of the more than 200 species of other birds that have been sighted at the Union Bay Natural Area and its surroundings.
There is, for example, Elvis the pileated woodpecker.
This is a bird that certainly has a showbizzy look about him, and Hubbell is building up a fan base for him, too.
Pileated woodpeckers have mainly brown-black and white feathers.
The males, however, sport a dramatic red-feathered forehead.
That’s the way it is in the bird world, where the females don’t care much if a male boasts he’s a genius social-media guru at Google. Show ’em the plumage.
Wrote Hubbell, “One might ask, Why call him Elvis? To begin with there is the ‘hair’ and the striking good looks … Additional reasons for the name include being loud, proud and uninhibited by a crowd.”
It takes a lot of effort to continually update a blog devoted to bird photos.
Hubbell figures he’s taken some 25,000 pictures, and deleted from his hard drives about 10,000 he deemed unsatisfactory.
He goes out to take photos throughout the year, in the early morning and the late afternoons, in sun and in rain, when he wraps the camera gear in plastic.
“You’d be surprised that even on rainy days, when it stops, you can sneak out in between showers,” says Hubbell.
He lives in the Montlake neighborhood, and began taking the bird pictures after he started taking his daughter’s dog out for hourlong walks.
Having had some back problems, Hubbell had decided to wear a backpack loaded up with heavy climbing gear as a way to strengthen his back muscles.
“Then I thought, why not carry a camera?” says Hubbell, and off he was in his new hobby.
Hubbell can get pretty philosophical about the birds he photographs.
He tells his fans, “My fear is that our progeny may forever live in a diminished world of crows, concrete and mechanical devices.”
On this particular afternoon, Hubbell says he takes no memorable photos of the 520 bridge bald eagles and their new eaglet.
But it’s a nice, sunny afternoon, and for a patient guy like Hubbell, that’s all right.
As he has blogged a few days earlier, “Just like last year once again there is new life, and hope for the future, in the nest that Eddie built.”
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org