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Carmichael Times

Susan Skinner Highlights Bald Eagles’ Majesty

May 02, 2024 09:43AM ● By Carol Feineman

Susan Maxwell Skinner takes a powerful lens to American River trails near where she found bald eagles nesting in 2016. 

CARMICHAEL, CA (MPG) - Susan Maxwell Skinner has gone to the birds for the last eight years.

Lucky for us, because the longtime Carmichael Times photographer/writer shares many photos showing the bald eagles' majesty. 

That awareness is needed; the species was threatened with extinction after World War II and Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act to prohibit killing, selling or possessing the species. 

Watched by her mate, a female bald eagle takes flight above the American River. Photo by Susan Maxwell Skinner

The giant raptor's comeback was also aided by restrictions on contaminants, enforcement of protective laws and management programs. 

Today, the American Eagle Foundation estimates that 71,400 nesting pairs are in the contiguous United States.

Since discovering one of those pairs on the American River near Folsom in 2016, Skinner has observed the pair and their offspring almost daily.

Photojournalist Susan Maxwell Skinner shows the cover of COMSTOCK’S Magazine. The business periodical features Skinner’s eagle photography to illustrate a story on a study of bird flight and its possible application to drone development. Photo courtesy of Betty Cooper

Amidst an already full week of writing and taking pictures about Carmichael events, along with performing as a jazz singer, Skinner spends many hours watching the birds.

She doesn't sit and wait for glimpses: Skinner extensively hikes American River Trails to record their activities.

"In the earlier years of this project, I walked sometimes 12 miles a day trying to understand their territory and where they hunt and nest," Skinner said.

It took her several months in 2016 to locate the eagles but once she did, Skinner made seeing them a part of her life. 

Fast forward to today and Skinner still exuberantly visits the raptors' habitat and adds to her thousands of images chronicling the American River's giant raptors. 

By spending much of the last eight years researching their characteristics and behaviors, Skinner has become an expert on the eagles living near Carmichael.

Why is the Carmichael community member so passionate about this quest?

"I've devoted a big slice of my recent life to the birds because they are a family. They're not just random birds. Their life unwittingly involves me. I can tell the parents apart at a glance. While their offspring were in the nest, I knew them all, too," Skinner said. “Eight years of peering through a 600-millimeter camera lens gives you eight years of studying every aspect of their behavior, appearance and personalities. I don't doubt that every bird, like every human, has a different nature. In that family, mama wears the pants, she's much older than her mate and she trained him out of from sub-adulthood to be a provider and carer as she is. They're a real couple. A wonderful marriage of energy and interest." 

Another reason that Skinner spends so much time honoring them is because the bald eagle, the national bird since 1782, represents the United State's strength, courage and freedom.

"Maybe I have this preoccupation because the bald eagle is such an American icon," Skinner considered. "Maybe because I'm an immigrant (from New Zealand). I had an emotional mission to find and photograph the eagles."  

Immediately following her naturalization ceremony in March 2017, Skinner visited the American River and saw the mother raptor tending a newly-hatched eaglet. Becoming a citizen and seeing a new generation of America's grandest icon a few hours later strengthened Skinner's connection with the birds. 

"Like me, they had made a leap of faith, establishing themselves in a new location and starting a new life," Skinner said.

Nature lovers throughout the country see Skinner's bald eagle photos via The Carmichael Times, her Facebook page and TV broadcasts. This April, Skinner's shots were featured on the cover of Comstock’s Magazine and on inside pages.

While she readily shares photos and interesting facts about the bald eagle family, for their safety, Skinner will not give out their location.    

"Susan has such a passionate commitment to chronicling the bald eagles and truly cares about them, protecting their location," said Comstock’s Editor Judy Farah. "She has spent hours on the trail and cliffside capturing their every movement, and even playfully naming each new eaglet with a fun name. We're so lucky to have her share the eagle family's history with us through her photos." 

After eight years of recording the American River eagles, Skinner still rejoices today in seeing them.  

Skinner took the Comstock's cover photo last year when the female eagle flew close to her head.

"It was breathtaking. I was walking up a bank and she flew by, about 20 feet over my head at almost eye level," Skinner said. "I could feel the draft of her even-foot wingspan. My heart was beating. I felt like I was touched by their majesty."

Baby Eagle Rescued 

Tree climbing heroes last week saved a 3-week-old eaglet that hung suspended for many hours below the bald eagle’s eyrie on the American River.

Heroic tree climber Kiover Lanus was among volunteers during the perilous rescue of an eaglet that hung suspended above a steep cliff. Courtesy photo

The rescue was enabled by team of volunteers, rescue specialists, firefighters, state and federal officers and two heroic tree-scaling arborists. One inched more than 50 feet above a steep precipice to bring the baby to safety. Staff at the Gold Country Wildlife Rescue (Auburn) later treated the eaglet for dehydration. Rescue experts hope to return the baby to its family that includes two older eaglets.

Carmichael Times photojournalist Susan Maxwell Skinner photographed and participated in the rescue. Full details of the dramatic incident will appear in next week’s edition.