My friend Susan and I witnessed a dramatic take down on a recent birding trip to the Ilwaco Harbor and Baker Bay. A tasty meal was at stake for the predator and the prey was an easy mark. The bald eagle steals or scavenges food, but it also catches live prey. Bald eagles can be seen perched atop of the large trees along the water’s edge of Baker Bay. This day there were a pair of bald eagles perched on the conifers rising on top of the cliffs that rise above Baker Bay. They were sitting close to one another as if they were discussing what they would have for dinner. Their distinctive high-pitched voices suggested excitement about something!
Our attention was then drawn to the mudflats in front of us. We could see that the tide was coming in, but there was still a little room for shorebirds feeding along the shore. We were a fair distance away standing in the parking area for the boat trailers. We could see a small flock of sanderlings, but due to the distance we were unable to get sharp photos. However, a double-crested cormorant with it wings spread out to dry beckoned to us. This was a better photo op!
Cormorants dive for fish and in the process their feathers become waterlogged. They have less preen oil than other birds, so their feathers can get soaked rather than shedding water like a duck’s, according to Cornell Ornithological Lab. This is a good thing because it helps the bird to go deeper in its quest for small fish. Waterlogged feathers are not as good for flying, however, so cormorants dry their wings after they leave the water. The double-crested cormorant was facing west. It seemed like it had forgotten to check its surroundings for possible predators.
We watched the bald eagles with interest and wondered what they might be up to. We also watched the double-crested cormorant as it dried its wings in the sun, and discussed how long we thought it would be before it took off. By now about 15-minutes had passed. The tide was in a little further, and was lapping at the feet of the cormorant.
Then, in the blink of an eye, one of the bald eagles left its perch and slowly floated downward angling its way toward the mudflat. All of a sudden it veered and sped up swooping in for the kill, and it did so in a mere second grabbing the cormorant by the neck with its massive, sharp talons. The eagle stood on the cormorant’s neck and pushed its head underwater. Dinner was served. The cormorant was taken by surprise and the evidence of this is that it failed to put up a struggle.
Afterwards, the eagle tried desperately to pick up the cormorant in order to carry it away. Did it still have young it was feeding? Was it hoping to share this bounty with its partner who was still sitting high up in the conifer? The answers are unknown because the cormorant proved to be too heavy for the Bald Eagle to carry away. Its only choice was to stay and eat its prey at the shoreline.
Soon a Caspian tern stopped by for a look. Later a few gulls began circling overhead. They wanted a piece of the action too, but they would have to wait their turn. Next came the turkey vultures. They are the cleanup crew and as such, help to keep our beaches clean. They will participate in the feast after the eagle has had enough. The gulls will try to snatch a morsel before the turkey vultures have finished. We watched the dramatic happenings in awe. It only took a matter of seconds and was unexpected. We rushed to the car to grab our cameras once we realized what was happening. Watching all the while as we dashed for the cameras, we knew it was too late to capture the dramatic take-down. We were also too far away to get good sharp photos.
It was quite the adventure! We were sad for the cormorant, but at the same time realized it was part of a bird’s life and a lesson in behavior for us.
“Common Birds of the Long Beach Peninsula,” by Kalbach and Stauffer, is available from the Chinook Observer, Bay Avenue Gallery, Time Enough Books and the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau.