Practice and Play for a Sub-adult Bald Eagle
Ever wonder how birds of prey become the sleek killers who take your breath away? Just like us, they have to practice skills to hone them, and what better way than through play at the beach?
Encounter Date: June 2, 2019
It was a gray and slightly windy early June day in the Pacific Northwest when we took our weekly hike down to our favorite beach to visit the resident Northwestern Crows and enjoy a picnic lunch. My partner and I greeted the Usual Suspects and settled in to bask in the solitude of being the lone humans surrounded by wildlife and an expansive shoreline.
We noted the sub-adult bald eagle circling above the tree line, which in itself wasn’t unusual. But as we watched, it became clear that this eagle had something strange going on. I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing…lots of circling, bringing its beak down to its feet while flying, sudden dives, swooping into trees, missed landings on branches, falling through trees.
Testing the endurance of our arm strength, we both shot in high burst mode for probably 20 of the 45 minutes of observation, musing out loud,
“Does it have something in its talons?…
Did it just drop it and chase it? …
Is a rodent biting at its feet? …
Is it *hurt*?”
It was a very long stretch of erratic behavior that I had never seen in a bird of prey. By the time it flew away, I had about 2500 shots that I hoped would help me piece together the mystery of what we had witnessed.
A Picture (or 200) Emerges
As I poured over my shots and culled down to useful ones, I actually laughed out loud and exclaimed,
“Oh goodness, are you *playing*?”
In hindsight, it makes sense that a young eagle – like us – might wile away a lonely afternoon by self-amusing with “games,” which just happen to advance mastery of skills critical to successful hunting. I just couldn’t believe how obvious it was once I was looking at the photos.
In many cases, it was hard to parse the behavior without motion, so I picked a few sequences and turned them into animated gifs to allow for a sense of action. You can imagine how much I would have liked to have an awesome high-zoom video camera for this particular day!
Skills Badge #1: Capture
The first behavior that happened again and again was it would circle a fir tree, gaze intently at a spot, swoop in, and make a grab for a fir cone. Think of this as low-pressure target practice!
Having the opportunity to pause and admire the skill necessary to perform these strikes was amazing, but my favorite part of this sequence is just how intense this young eagle is as it begins its attack.
Skills Badge #2: Let’s Play Ball!
Once the fir cone was secured, the next game was “Transfer, Drop & Catch.” The eagle would fly up above the tree line and lean down to manipulate the cone from beak to talons. It’s hard to tell if the cone is being passed or just picked apart…probably both. I had at least 5 sequences of this where cone passing went on for quite a while, and then culminated in dropping the cone and turning into a steep dive to catch it again in mid-air.
Manipulating your prey in flight and reacquiring it if lost seem like very useful skills. I’ve also seen this aerial dexterity come into play when eagles harass osprey into dropping their fish.
Skills Badge #3: Just Hanging Around
Perhaps the most baffling – and charming – game was a dexterity game. Knowing this eagle had made it through roughly four years of life, it seemed impossible that it hadn’t figured out how to land on a branch without falling off, so these activities are what initially made me wonder if it was sick or hurt.
In the first variation of this game, our young eagle dove into the fir tree with talons out to grab a branch. As soon as it grabbed the branch, it flipped itself upside down like a bat and just hung there looking around, eventually letting go to drop through the trees before turning to gain altitude again.
The second variation of this game seemed to be a limb balancing test. The eagle flew over to a snag with lots of dead branches and only targeted the very tips of the smallest branches. The game seemed to be a) could it grab the limb in an updraft, and b) if so, how long could it hold balance. This game went on for a good 10 minutes before it finally sat on a nice fat branch, presumably to tally the score.
Understanding Is Its Own Reward
It’s a darn shame that this intriguing and educational day of observation didn’t yield National Geographic-worthy photos – the low light, wind and distance were never going to give me the perfect shots.
However, capturing this on “film” gave me an opportunity to process, understand and enjoy the wonderful experience I had seen as a baffling, high-action, erratic series of behaviors in the field. I’m always so grateful for the wonders that my camera unlocks for me at home after I interact with the natural world.
For those of you who would like to enjoy the geeky detail of individual photos in the animated gifs, here’s the whole Flickr album – click through to get it full-sized 🙂