They came with an appetite. Bald eagles, once calmly perched atop the spruce trees that line Campobello Island’s rocky coast, now dive bombed seagulls and pushed aside cormorants until they and they alone could claw the fish on the water’s surface. And they clawed like hell.
Eagles, as majestic as they are, are actually pretty annoying when it comes to feeding. They are opportunistic carnivores, “Don’t mind if I do” dieters. If food is available, the eagle will eat it, or take it, as seen on this whale watching trip off the coast of Campobello, located at the entrance to Passamaquoddy Bay in Eastern Canada’s New Brunswick province.
Two minke whales were in the area. They surfaced and dove in erratic intervals, each time in unpredictable locations: the light house, the shoal, the open sea, in front, behind and beneath our boat. This alone would have made for an incredible outing. But when all of the seagulls, seemingly every bird in Canada, dove to one spot in the water just as a minke whale rose we realized we had stumbled onto an incredible wildlife event. The whales had been circling a large school of bait fish beneath the surface, corralling them into a tighter and tighter mass known as a bait ball. The result was a chaotic feast.
The gulls were having a picnic. They dove and gulped and pecked at whatever the whales left behind. The whales came back for more. Some birds carried fish away but most stayed and feasted, almost bathing themselves in the meal. The squawks were deafening. But that would soon change.
First there was one. It’s wingspan as long as two gulls side by side, gliding towards the feast. It’s menacing face full of confidence and determination. As the eagle plunged downwards the curtain of birds parted, giving the eagle prime access to the fish. For a few seconds it hovered over the surface of the water, assessing its lunch options uncontested while the gulls scattered even further. A fish leapt from the water right into the eagle’s talons, as if to sacrifice itself so that the bird would move on. But more would come.
A second eagle arrived from the west, followed by two and three more, each more menacing than the next, batting their wings at the small gulls, stealing their fish. In total seven bald eagles came and took the meal that the gulls, having followed the minkes for a half hour, had waited so patiently for. The gulls finally got to eat, but, from our point of view, the meal might have tasted better had the birds not been bullied from the first bites.
So what about those greedy bald eagles? Ben Franklin famously dissed the bird when he wrote, “For my part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly…like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. Besides, he is a rank coward….”
Rank coward, I’m not so sure. In this case I would call them “bullies,” picking on the smaller and less aggressive gulls, though the ornithologist says, “Opportunistic.”
Opportunity seized, the eagles ate their meal on the fly, holding the fish with one talon and tearing at them with the other. They greedily gulped them down or held onto two or three fish for later.
Then they were gone.
As they flew away we were once again taken by their beauty, watching every beat of their wings and the smoothness with which they soared through the air. Each of us in awe of their being. They looked so majestic, so regal. The bullying that had taken place was quickly forgotten.
And we loved them once again.