I wasn’t going to write about this wildlife sighting because I didn’t have a camera with me at the time and couldn’t include photos with my posting. Then this morning I read the Washington Post obituary for nature-writer extraordinaire and National Book Award winner Barry Lopez, a longtime Oregonian sometimes compared to Thoreau. Lopez died at age 75 on Christmas Day. The obit recalled how Lopez had chosen to stop photographing wildlife years ago after an encounter with a polar bear when he decided his camera’s telephoto lens gave him an unfair “advantage over the bear.” After that, he committed his wildlife encounters to memory and shared them only through his words. In honor of a man of ethics and art, I humbly offer this recollection, without photos:
AT LOPEZ ISLAND’S HUNTER BAY PUBLIC DOCK, I had just returned to WeLike from a brief time ashore on a cold Monday three days after Christmas. I was about to climb aboard our old runabout when a flash of white drew my eye over the water.
Sunshine had burned away winter’s gloom. Overhead, puffy clouds drifted like hot-air balloons, casting fleeting shadows on Lopez Sound and the distant blue-black ridges of Orcas Island.
What had caught my eye was sunlight glinting off the head and tail of a bald eagle.
The big bird was some 800 feet away, tightly circling over the water, looking down. Alone, I stepped to dock’s end to watch.
I was mesmerized as the eagle dipped almost to the surface, jerked to a stop, then flapped away into the air. Obviously hunting. A big fish near the surface? I wondered.
Again and again, it pirouetted and wheeled. After I’d watched for three minutes, maybe ten — I honestly don’t know — a lilting soprano call, perhaps best described as a gargling whistle, drew my head to another eagle emerging from nearby firs. The new bird appeared on broad wings to join the first, both wheeling in a corkscrew pattern over the same spot in the water.
Whatever was there was elusive. The eagles whirled and dodged but never stopped peering down. A dozen feet away inside my boat was a pair of binoculars, but I couldn’t peel myself away from the drama.
The second eagle finally departed back to the trees, but the first was not to give up on its prey. Once or twice it struck at the water but came up with empty talons.
Finally, after a longer period than I can tell you, a tiny wet head poked up from the ripples. A bird, not a fish. A small, slim head. Maybe a grebe? It quickly dipped underwater again, too fast for the eagle.
But by now the diving bird, starved of oxygen, must have exhausted itself eluding the patient hunter above. It soon reappeared. The eagle plunged, all in this time.
And it stayed in the water.
Because eagles are commonly seen flying with fish in their talons, some people think that’s all they eat. But in “dog-eat-dog” fashion, smaller birds make up a big part of a bald eagle’s diet. One problem: With its feathers drenched, and with a struggling prey that was perhaps a fifth of its own weight, this eagle couldn’t get airborne again.
From my distance I could see the eagle’s head bob up and down, likely starting to feed on its catch. Flopping its wings, it slowly moved toward a large rock called Crab Island, a couple hundred feet away.
As I returned to my boat, a woman from a nearby beach home strode down the dock. She, too, had been watching. She voiced concerned that the eagle was still in the water. Was it hurt?
I told her I’d seen the diving bird come up. “I’m pretty sure the eagle’s just eating his meal,” I assured her. And while eagles don’t have webbed feet built for swimming, bird guides will tell you they can manage a decent sort of breast stroke with their wings. This one was making good headway and soon made it to Crab Island.
For me, it was a captivating glimpse of the wild world, with watery winter sunshine spotlighting those snow-white feathers, burning the image into my memory.
For the diving bird, it was the desperate and frightening end of life. For the eagle, it was lunchtime.