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Swims - yes swims - like an eagle!

What started as a very casual, "let's get out of the house" expedition, turned into the most memorable birding event of our lives.

map1_eagle.jpgIt was 4 pm on a Sunday and I was feeling kind of hum-drum, so I suggested to Bren we do some shore birding. She was recovering from an overnight trip to Vermont and at first didn’t want to go, but as I fiddled around delaying my departure she decided to join me. On a whim, as we sat in the driveway, I suggested we could go see if we could find the bald eagles that, according to a recent newspaper article, were nesting on North Watuppa Pond. "Sure," she said, so we headed north. Watuppa is the water supply for the City of Fall River so as far as I know there's only one small strip of causeway that gives a good view of the pond and it's at the north end. There's no boating, fishing, swimming, etc. allowed.

So in about 25 minutes we pulled up on the causeway ( the circle marked "1" on the second map) and began scanning with our glasses. Almost immediately we saw a bird above the tree line of a distant shore that looked awfully big and seemed to have the flat-winged glide of an eagle! Then as I continued to scan I picked up a white head in a distant pine tree off on the same eastern shore. (The circle marked "2" on the second map.) I was sure it was a bald eagle. Then I saw its white tail as well. I was using the 15X45 IS Canon's and Bren was using much smaller glasses of just 8X, but she found him too.

We were thrilled. Neither of us have seen more than a couple of eagles in the wild in our lives, so just seeing this one off in the distance was great.


As we both watched the eagle in the pine tree – he was maybe two-thirds up from the water – no nest in sight – a second eagle suddenly came into view. This one was closer, maybe 10-feet above the water, and flying from right to left. We saw he was approaching a seagull and I murmured something like "bet he steals that gull's fish."

Wrong. The target was the gull and he got it in the blink of an eye. We both shuddered. Yes, this is nature. There's nothing wrong here. Eagles have to eat too. But neither of us enjoys seeing one animal kill another animal. Still, we watched as the eagle floated on top of the water, the seagull underneath it. ( See the circle marked "3" on the second map.) About a minute passed – it's hard to say exactly how long – and then he took off, gull in his talons. But he hardly got above the water with his load than he plopped back down in.

This time it didn’t look like he was going to get out. I had heard that young osprey sometimes catch a fish that is too large for them, but their talons lock in, they can’t let go, and they end up drowning. Was this what we were about to see?

Then the most incredible thing happened. The eagle – a mature bird at least four years old with white head and white tail, started swimming. I kid you not. There was a small chop on the water and wind blowing that slapped at him. But he held his head out of the water, as well as his white tail, and we could see him rowing – yes, rowing is the best way to describe it – with his wings. It seemed like an act of desperation, but experienced birders perhaps see this all the time. I don’t know. In any event, from our stand point we seriously wondered whether we were going to witness the demise of both the prey and predator. He was in the middle of the pond at a point where it is about 2,000 feet across. The nearest shore was perhaps 600 feet away. It's hard to be sure, but reviewing the maps afterwards this is our best guess. That's where the tree was that held the other adult eagle – who must have witnessed this, but was doing nothing. He just sat and watched. (Well he or she – we don’t know how to tell the difference.)

But our eagle wasn't heading for that closer shore. He (she?) was striking out in the other direction. Not straight into the wind, but off towards a quite distant shore to the west with the wind coming from the outh west. Was she confused? To our surprise, she made steady progress. At first I thought she wa barely treading water, But then I noticed the background changing. Very fast, really. So we eventually decided she knew what she was doing, though we continued to wonder out loud if she could make it. Then, ahead of her, after what seemed like a longer time thanit was, we spotted a rock. "Bet she's heading for that!"

And indeed she was. There actually was a shallow area there, still quite far out in the pond, with two or three rocks and some reed visible, and after a swim of perhaps 10 minutes and covering about 1,000 feet, the eagle clamored up on the rock, dragging its prey behind it. (See yellow dot marked "4.") I believe she had the gull in a just her left talon, though it was on the down slope of the rock facing away from us, so was difficult to be sure.

We breathed a collective sigh of relief, then watched as the feathers started flying. That went on for another 30 minutes or so, then she took off, some portion of the prey still in her talons, and headed towards the western side of the pond where we presume the nest is. She was out of view pretty quickly,

And the other adult? He stayed in the tree. We decided it must have been a male, since men enjoy watching women prepare dinner ;-) Incidentally, other gulls came by apparently investigating this event and it looked like a couple might try to harass the eagle as it swam, but they didn't get too close. As it ate its prey, a flock of about 20 gulls floated on the water between the two eagles, either unaware, or unbothered by the recent events.

But in all seriousness – seeing two eagles would have made this a red-letter birding day. Seeing an eagle catch a gull would have upped it a notch, certainly making it nearly as memorable as the day we saw eight eagles and over 2,000 broadwings from Mount Watatic. But watching that eagle swim all that distance with its prey – that put this event off the charts and what a delight it was to share it with each other!

Any comments? Information on similar incidents? Expertise on eagle behavior? Please send your thoughts to:

Comments - yes, they can indeed swim!

Received several comments from folks - including birders - who felt this was indeed unusual. One, who spent serious time watching eagles in Alaska where they are quite common, said she never saw anything like this. But she shared it with a friend who wrote back to her:

VERY cool story....very cool. I was struck by his comment/query that perhaps this was not something out of the usual for habitual birders. So, out of curiousity (you know how curious I am). I Googled "swimming bald eagle" and came up with these sites. The first has PHOTOS of an eagle swimming much as Greg's story recounts.

The second is a story of a similar incident (catching a fish that was too big) with an eagle in Alaska that also swam to a rock with its prey.

And this is from an "ask an eagle expert" site:

Q. Can a Bald Eagle swim?

A. Great question. Absolutely. They are very good swimmers, and I've even seen older nestlings who can't fly yet swim. It's not uncommon for an eagle to "misjudge" and latch into a fish too heavy/large for it to fly with, so they then may swim quite a distance to shore (wouldn't want to let go of lunch now would we), drag the fish up on shore and then eat it.

So, thanks for an interesting time--reading Greg's captivating account and then searching for info on something that I didn't know......they SWIM (and the photos in the first website are very cool too).

Posted by Greg Stone at August 20, 2006 07:10 PM