Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
With a significant snow melt currently underway, this year’s spring migration is pushing northward. Canada geese, a handful of white-fronts, and bald eagles are the most noticeable vanguards of things to come. While driving up the highway toward my home at Clear Lake, I spotted a distant eagle traveling in the same northbound direction. Flying at an altitude of 30 yards or so above the landscape, the huge bird was paralleling the paved roadway in the same manner it would follow a natural river channel.
Once I caught up to the bird, I slowed down to admire its flight. A magnificent specimen, the eagle exhibited the perfect cinnamon and snow-white plumage of a seasoned adult. Heading due north, the raptor was stroking along at a speed of about 37 mph. The eagle never veered from its parallel course, and I paced the bird for more than a mile.
As we neared the completion of our second mile, the show took a dramatic turn when the eagle suddenly hit the brakes and plunged earthward. Briefly disappearing behind a dip in the topography, the bird quickly reemerged to continue its northerly flight. The only difference was that it was now carrying some surprising baggage — a hen pheasant hopelessly confined within the raptor’s crushing grip. When the eagle suddenly decided to “change lanes” and cross the road in front of me, I managed to pull aside and fire off a shot with the telephoto. Taken through the upper portion of my tinted windshield, the photo – though certainly no prize winner — was enough to document the occasion.
Carrying the pheasant with the same ease that a Cooper’s hawk carries a sparrow, the eagle continued up the highway and had soon resumed its speed of 35 to 37 mph. Halfway through the next section, the bird passed a large farm grove where it drew the attention of a second eagle which was perched somewhere along the windbreak. Spying the drooping pheasant, the bird – also an adult — immediately launched and gave chase. Catching up to the first eagle within a quarter mile or so, the pursuer lost no time in attempting to steal the dead hen from its rightful owner. Although the would-be robber made two successful contacts, it was unable to wrest the prize from the talons of its opponent. The intruder gave up and sailed away. After continuing for some distance, the original [pheasant carrying] eagle adjusted its course and headed toward a stand of timber; presumably to finally dine on its succulent prize.
Continuing up the highway, I began to recall other episodes when I’ve been able to observe the more predatory nature of the bald eagle. Nearly all encounters have involved waterfowl. During Thanksgiving break, I once watched an eagle lift a late season goldeneye off the ice before the duck, or any of its companions, could even make an effort to take to the air. Following annual spring ice outs, I’ve watched bald eagles capture scaup, ring-necks, and redhead ducks at will. When it’s time for a meal, the eagles simply fly out to a large raft of ducks and, following a few seconds of hovering, effortlessly pluck one from the water. Although the divers would simultaneously submerge in panic, it did not save the ones the eagles had targeted. For a raptor to capture a healthy diving duck of any species is an amazing feat.
A few years back, I had a memorable experience while hunting late season pheasants with a trained peregrine falcon. The falcon had already been on the wing for a good while before I finally put a bird into the air. The falcon came sizzling in, bound to the speeding pheasant, and then rode it down to the snowy cornstalks.
I don’t know where it came from, but an immature bald eagle suddenly appeared in the sky, flying as hard as it could go in a beeline course for the falcon and its struggling prey. Realizing the danger, I immediately began running, screaming, and wildly waving my arms. Happily, the sight was enough to drive the eagle away. Had I not been so close to the scene, the eagle would have certainly stolen the pheasant and would have possibly killed the peregrine as well.
An equally unforgettable event occurred when my son, Matt and I joined Swaledale’s Curt Stille for a spring snow goose hunt. Alerted by the frenzied yelping of an approaching goose, we peered skyward and spotted an adult, blue phase snow goose being hotly pursued by an immature bald eagle. Although the goose was conducting some high-speed evasive maneuvers, the eagle had achieved radar lock and appeared to be closing the gap. Arriving over the windsock decoys, the panicked goose dropped like a meteor toward the heart of the spread where, instead of finding safety in numbers, the web-foot promptly collided with a well-placed load of steel shot. It was the one and only time I can think of where we felt somewhat guilty about bagging a decoying snow goose.