I saw a young eagle diving at the water out in Budd Inlet. I couldn’t make out anything on the surface that he might be diving for, so I figured he was fishing. After three or four rapid-succession dives in the same spot I went for the binoculars.
Ducklings in Danger
Zoomed-in I could see that the quarry was a tight brood of six ducklings, in the care of their papa. (They may have been mergansers, but I’m guessing wood ducks.) They were navigating low waves on a medium tide, just beyond the shingle beach. I grimaced at what I thought I was about to see. I appreciate eagles, and I know they have to eat, but when baby ducks are involved…yikes.
I was making a classic mistake, assuming the ducks were helpless, the eagle almighty. These birds have been living out here together a whole lot longer than humans have been watching and worrying about them. I thought of another eagle and duck dynamic I had noticed.
Last winter from a high bluff nearby I could watch bufflehead ducks “flying” underwater. I noticed that they generally surface from a dive with a sudden rush across the water for a few yards. They winter here, so I see it every day. Intrigued, I have long thought perhaps it was a mating display.
A few weeks later I noticed an eagle was perched on a tall madrona snag overhanging the beach nearby. There were buffleheads out on the bay, diving, surfacing with that sudden scoot. The eagle appeared nonchalant, just sitting up there, looking around.
Suddenly the eagle rolled off the perch and into a fast steep dive toward the water, and the flock of buffleheads. His timing was impeccable—he hit the water just as one of the buffleheads surfaced. But he couldn’t quite factor in that surfacing rush: the duck scooted and the eagle caught water. While the eagle flew back up to try again, that instinctual rush the buffleheads practice gained a whole new meaning.
What Happened to the Ducklings?
My grimace turned to a grin as each time the eagle dove, all seven ducks dove as well. Thinking this had to be easy pickings, the eagle kept flying up, turning back, diving again. He made the loop at least twenty times in the next few minutes. With every pass the ducklings and their father went under just long enough to avoid the plunging eagle. They came right back up and continued paddling along, no doubt watching ever more closely for expanding shadows. The whole family paddled on as the eagle gave up and headed back to the woods.
Papa duck was showing the kids something about the vulnerability of being a duck, and how to relate to that reality, while the eagle was learning something important about the vagaries of a mobile and perceptive food source. Tough to be an eagle, too. He probably used up more energy in the attempt than he would have gained from catching a duckling. The diminishing returns wore him out.
There’s a balance in the world that eludes us when we focus on isolated incidents, and draw hasty conclusions.
The images are by Barry Troutman, used here with his permission.
To see more of his stunning bird images: [click here].