Caught

On a muggy, August morning, I stood on a grassy dike counting birds in a wetland unit at the refuge. There was an occasional hint of a breeze on my back but not enough to remove the weight of the humid air around me. We had partially filled the unit with water earlier in the week after leaving it dry through the summer months to let vegetation grow. We had also mowed and disced a few areas to create mudflats once water was added. The shorebirds filled the spaces between plants and water, probing the mud and munching the invertebrates that would give them sustenance to successfully complete their southward migrations.

The sun was in my eyes and its golden ochre color shimmered on the surface of the water. I could see blue-winged teal, mallards and Canada geese silhouetted against the dazzle, as their movements created small, dark ripples around them. With my binoculars, I slowly scanned the shallow areas and noted several species of shorebirds, including yellowlegs, plovers and sandpipers.

A sudden, nervous response caused some of the birds to take flight upward in a synchronized flash then spiral to earth to feed again. I panned with them as they flew up, then, after losing them from my field of vision I scanned the edge of the woodlands that bordered the south side of the pool. An immature bald eagle was perched on a snag beside the unit watching the movement of the birds between us. I studied the eagle a few moments and, from its dark coloration with white splotches, determined it was about 3 years old. I lowered my binoculars and watched the group of birds in front of me a few moments longer. I turned and walked along the dike stirring up mosquitoes in the grass. The light westerly breeze was not strong enough to afford protection from the mosquitoes so it was not long before I became a miserable, sweaty object of breakfast for the blood thirsty little beasts. I had no bug spray so I resigned myself to deal with the discomfort.

I finished inspecting the unit and was pleased to see our management efforts pay off by the number of birds the wetland was attracting. There were several wetland units located together on this portion of the refuge, so I walked to another. Scanning the next unit with binoculars, I located a large flock of common terns with a few ring-billed gulls resting on a large mudflat. There were also snowy egrets, great egrets and great blue herons around the edge in the deeper waters. Killdeer were noisily flying around and landing from time to time near a group of short-billed dowitchers.

I walked back to my truck and pulled out the spotting scope. I thought I would take a closer look at the shorebirds to see if there were any species I had not identified. The breeze had begun to pick up, cooling my skin. It also blew the mosquitoes back into the protection of the grass at my feet, giving me additional relief.

As I set up the scope a movement over the water caught my eye. I looked up just as the immature eagle dropped out of the sky. From the edge of the woodland it swooped to the surface of the water in front of me. In the blink of an eye, before any of the ducks could escape, the eagle had snagged a blue winged teal in its talons. The bird of prey hefted the small duck out of the water with little effort. The weight of the duck caused the eagle to drop slightly and sway its legs sideways. The eagle beat its wings with great force and swung upward, bringing its legs and prey forward with a splash of water that caught the morning sunlight like a brilliant display of diamonds.

Now, the other ducks, geese and shorebirds in the unit flew up in a noisy cacophony of mass confusion. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion as the sun back-lit the jumble of birds and silver-lined wings moving in every direction. The eagle became a dark silhouette as it lifted its prey skyward, casting its fearful shadow across the water. Above the din of calls and beating duck wings, I could hear the air reverberate with the powerful down stroke of the eagle's wings as it gained height. From its formidable talons, hung the limp shape of the teal with its life already gone. Caught in the eagles crushing and piercing grasp, the ducks life ended as swiftly as the attack had come.

The young raptor flew to a tree on the corner of the unit and settled abruptly and without grace on a limb. Through the spotting scope, I watched as the eagle tore feathers from its prey with its massive beak. Each time the predator swallowed a morsel, it looked around the landscape warily. This meal would not take long to consume. Another immature eagle appeared and landed on a nearby branch. It called a few times then flew away. The first eagle continued its feast ignoring the intruder.

Turning my attention back to the ducks on the water I reflected how quickly the scene was returning to normal. The eagle had caused only a few moments of disruption. Most of the ducks and shorebirds were already returning and renewing their previous behaviors. Again, they were preening and feeding themselves making new ripples on the water as they swam about. I could hear them converse with their chortles and squawks and grunts. They seemed to enjoy the warmth of the morning without a care in the world.

Website Builder