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A chilled off shore breeze, surrounds another misty morning on the Courtenay Estuary (East Coast, Vancouver Island). Its a quiet, unassuming and wild ecosystem, home to many species of wildlife. Its shorelines abundant in Canadian Geese, Gull’s, Belted King Fishers and Great Blue Heron, plus many more. Whilst its waters are only disturbed by the surfacing Harbour Seals and a variety of ducks. But its skies are only reserved for few, one being the Bald Eagle.
The Bald Eagle
Perched high on a shoreline conifer sits a lone, female Bald Eagle. She focuses only downwards over the estuary, with her piercing yellow eyes. Sitting and waiting, she radiates a threatening presence, over the body of water. She stays focused and quiet as she waits. Waiting… Waiting.. When all of a sudden in the distance she spots movement. Salmon are making their way upstream into the estuary. She turns her white feathered head precariously, while giving off a look of interest. Focused only on this new turn of events, she begins to make her move. Shuffling down the branch with her large and sharp orange talons she investigates further, but only for mere moments.
All of a sudden her head arches vertically, while she lets out a sharp screeching call. She presents and unleashes her large wingspan as they begin to gush wind back and forth. She then launches into take off, dropping slightly before taking altitude. Reaching speeds of over fifty kilometres an hour, she soars higher and higher. Positioning herself above the running salmon. Beginning to hover, she circles and locks on to her unknowing targets.
Everything seems settled and slow, but only just for a moment…..
In a flash she begins to dive. Jetting down towards the waters surface, moving at an incredible speed, she continues to lock on and position herself for a catch. Extending those sharp talons she scrapes the waters surface, submerging them ever so slightly……. Everything goes quiet, everything turns to slow motion, her talons emerge, water dripping off her claws, empty, no salmon, no catch.
This time she’s missed her target, but with that dissapointment, she takes to the skies again. For there are many more opportunities for this eagle
The Performers Of The Sky
Bald Eagles, I’ve heard them called many things in my travels along the Vancouver Island Coast. “elegant and extravagant, remarkable or threatening”, and one of my favourites, “kind of annoying”. But besides all the lovely descriptions one things for sure they certainly are a strikingly stunning bird of prey.
Throughout my time traveling the rocky beaches of the island, I’ve been lucky enough to have experienced scenarios, including the one above, on several occasions. Naturally as you’d expect, I have encountered many different varieties of wildlife along the way, but there’s something about an eagle (to me) that makes me stop and just appreciate.
I don’t know if this is because I’m not exposed to such large bird of prey in New Zealand, or if it is just a natural inclination of mine (and many other tourists), however eagles have something… Confidence, X factor, presence. It may sound like I’m describing a talent show contestant, however having taken hundreds of Bald Eagle photographs, and having spent so much time watching and analysing their characteristics and movements, its what myself and so many see.
In so many forms, Bald Eagles demand attention, whether it be from their distinctive high pitch calls, their hovering presence over a body of water or their large,sharp talons, their extravagant physical features demand a respect. From an emotional point of view, they seem to hold a very threatening presence. This aura as such, spreads across their ecosystems, and is one that is very visible to the human eye. When an Eagle takes flight over a body of water, ducks dive, juvenile heron find shelter in the tree’s and salmon as well as contending with harbour seals now have another issue from above… (poor salmon).
An Opportunistic Bald Eagle
Stereo typically, Bald Eagles are known to be a proud species. In many ways we have created a symbolism of human culture around them. They’re proud, free and in charge taking no word but their own. From my experiences I can see how they may exemplify some of these characteristics. However Eagles do know how to take a backward step, at times and simply sit on the shoulder of geniuses to achieve their daily goals.
On many occasions, I spotted Bald Eagles in and around Vancouver Island taking advantage of other wildlife’s good fortune. I will always remember my first sighting of a harbour seal hunting salmon (once again poor salmon) near a small bay on Hornby Island. A harbour seal had made a clean catch and had already began enjoying a decent feed. However just as the seal was about to finish it’s successfully caught meal, an eagle swooped in from high above, extended its talon’s, latched on to the left over prey, and proceeded to the shoreline.
Quite simply the eagle stole the seals food. What made this scene worse and somewhat humorous however, was the fact that the eagle then seemed to lay down the law, to a various amount of other coastal species.
As the seal submerged below, probably in reality being quite used to the experience. Other coastal birds, began to make their way towards the culprit. Their intention quite simple, steal it off the eagle, and take it for their own.
With a salmon carcass wedge in its claws, the eagle motives instantly changed from offensive to defensive. In no uncertain terms the eagle, screeched loudly and sharply in several aggressive tones. Many of the birds, moved on accordingly. However the only one who seemed to refuse too back down on its advances, was non other than one of the eagles own, another bald eagle. The commotion that took place on the shoreline didn’t last long however as both eagles decided to settle matters in the nearby conifers. (I’m not sure of the outcome, however there was a lot of kerfuffle).
An Eco Warrior With Feathers
So in the end of the day what does an eagle actually contribute to the environment?
Well besides keeping an ecosystems level of prey potentially balanced. They are surprisingly very beneficial for Vancouver Island, Canada and the planet, in a very specific way. As mentioned above when the bald eagle proceeded to steal the seals freshly caught salmon it performed one very important act, it took the carcass onto the shore and eventually into the forest. So why is one, so very common bird habit that important
When an eagle latches onto a salmon and takes it high into the forest, it does an important thing. It leaves behind salmon carcass remains. Salmon remains contain an enormous quantity of nitrogen, which is instrumental towards promoting plant growth. In fact according to the BBC, eighty percent of Great Bear Rainforest, a habitat that covers 32,000 sq km of land (on the west coast of British Columbia), comes from the Salmon. Now this isn’t all just the work of eagles, there is of course both Black and Grizzly bear as well as many other species responsible, that can’t be undermined.
However one thing that can’t be argued is that the eagles are just as responsible for this action. In fact, during a trip to Thornton Creek Hatchery (West Coast, Vancouver Island). We were advised by volunteers and employees of the salmon hatchery that on Vancouver Island, salmon DNA had been found at the tips of Douglas fir trees which can reach a potential 20-100 metres in height. Now this could be a variety of species, however they also advised us that this find no doubt suits the characteristics of Eagles.
(For the last time, poor salmon)
An Eagle does, what an eagle does
So there you have it, some of my experiences, with Bald Eagles while traveling Vancouver Island. They certainly are remarkable birds, no matter how you view them. Whether it be their dominant and arrogant nature, their extravagant physical features or they’re clever opportunistic mentality. However one important thing has to be said, in the end of the day an eagle does what an eagle does.
(And by the way if you were interested, the lone eagle on the Courtenay Estuary did catch a meal).
Want to see more Bald Eagles? View my Bald Eagle slide show below
Vancouver Island, Photo Gallery