Back in the day, there used to be a nature show put on by an insurance company. It featured a stoddardly old guy who always seemed to be opening sentences with, “Just like the mother bear protects her cubs…..” I think that was the insurance bit. Anyway, I thought about “Wild Kingdom” the other day as I was watching 3 Bald Eagles along the roadside take part in a never-ending dance called survival. Cue the theme music…
I’ve been watching that deer carcass near the south end of Devil’s Lake State Park for a few days now. As a bit of a nature addict and wannabe photographer, I knew that soon the dead animal would draw in a variety of local wildlife looking for a much-needed meal to help survive another Wisconsin winter. The 9 day deer hunting season just ended and it’s always sad to discover a deer that has been killed and not “harvested” this time of year, but I do take some solace in the fact that it’s energy won’t go to waste.
In the first couple of days since I discovered the carcass, there was nothing moving other than an occasional crow. It takes a bit of time before the local wildlife discovers the new food source. What I was hoping for, was that it might draw in a large coyote that I’ve seen in passing a few times in the area. So far though she’s been out of sight.
Two days ago I saw a shadow the size of a small dog standing on the carcass. I couldn’t make out at first what I was seeing. A racoon? Well, that wouldn’t make any sense at all! As I drove up closer I saw the white of its head and realized that what I was seeing was a large Bald Eagle! Sweet! Not wanting to get too close, I drove up as far as I dared along the roadside, parked and turned off the car. When watching or photographing eagles (Or practically any other wildlife for that matter.) your car is often your best blind. Most animals seem to quickly notice, then write off a car, but take one step out of your vehicle and they’re gone! Knowing that a good meal could make all the difference for an eagle trying to survive the winter, staying in your car is just the right thing to do!
I watched as the beautiful bird tore out big chunks of red meat from the fresh hide and then, quickly, gulp them down. It would brace its talons against the nearly frozen body and pull with all of its might to tear the flesh away. (I know, poor deer.) After each mouthful, the eagle would quickly survey the surrounding area before once again ripping into the deer for another bite. At some point in this process I followed the eagle’s gaze and noticed that it paused for a moment to size up a dark lump in the distance. As it went back to eating, I got out my telephoto lens and checked it out. Through my camera lens I could see that this “lump” was another large eagle. It was younger and still lacked the trademarked white head, but still it was of substantial size. Maybe 1-2 years old.
After watching for a while I realized that this younger eagle was slowly advancing on the older eagle and its meal. It walked. Slowly. It would hop forward a few feet occasionally then stop. All the while the feeding bird would monitor the movement, then go back in for another bite. This went on for a while until, apparently, the younger bird felt it was time to make its move and challenge the older bird for its chance at the table. It lifted up and quickly soared just a foot or so over the frozen earth toward the carcass. The other eagle seemed to simply leap about 15 feet directly in the younger birds path, and suddenly we had a stand-off.
The older eagle, looking a bit like an overgrown sea-gull, stretched out its neck and loudly told off the other bird. It’s here where it’s worth mentioning that the sound you always hear in movies when a Bald Eagle flies overhead is actually the sound of a hawk. In truth, Bald Eagles have squeaky, squawking voice that registers much closer to cute than majestic. It’s a good thing they have scary beaks and huge, sharp talons, because their voice wouldn’t scare anyone!
The two birds moved around each other like sumo wrestlers, sizing up the competition and looking for their opening. Then suddenly the younger bird took to the air and tried to drop on the older bird from above. Having none of it, the older raptor leapt up and had both claws out before the younger eagle could complete its attack. Again they landed just feet away. Then again, the younger bird lifted off of the ground and pressed its attack. All the while the older eagle simply brushed off the aggressor like an old sensei with an over-confident student. The mottled young bird finally relented and landed a few feet away, having gained no ground. This time though, the older adult seemed to have had enough. It began a long, loud series of squawks then lifted off of the ground and it forcibly chased the young eagle backwards some 20 yards from the carcass. Then after a short pause, the older eagle simply returned to the top of the deer carcass, turned it’s back on the younger eagle watch at a distance, and went back to its meal as if nothing had happened. An eagle fight is all about posturing and intimidation. Rarely does anyone really get hurt.
It was somewhere around here when I noticed yet another young eagle had landed not far away. 3 eagles now! Cool! Well, we had been parked alongside the road for nearly an hour. Life goes on and I had to go. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen next. Would the new youngster challenge the older adult as well? Would the two other birds simply wait their turn? Would they inturn fight for the right to the next meal? “Oh well, I’ll have to keep wondering.”, I thought, as I put my camera in the back seat and slipped the old Subaru into gear..
One thing I can tell you is that early the very next morning as I drove by, there was a younger eagle standing on the carcass… stay tuned…