…even as the eagle drives her young at last from the neighborhood of her eyrie, — for their own good, since there is not food enough there for all…Thoreau, Journal, 3/22/61
As we draw near these duck-broods, a conversational cluck-talk suddenly morphs into squawking concern – every duck’s talking at once, and they have begun to hurry this way and that. Are we cause? In our three small boats do we appear to be duck-doom? Ah, no…something else is near.
Also amply fed in this season of plenty, an eagle wheels above the now-panicked covey of ducks, who – it must be said – have had a prolific breeding season. There may be 10 adult ducks in this flotilla 50 or so, and seconds ago one of them has set up the alarm, but now much of the cacophony rises from fuzzy brown ducklings, who seem suddenly to have adopted the random movements of a moth when a bat flies near. The orderly little files of ducks that had been paddling serenely out of our boats’ path have become a hurried scatter of flurried (flightless) wings and webbed feet scratching for water-traction.
The eagle, some twenty feet off the deck, nears, and wherever it veers, 20 ducks dive. Little explosions of spray show where they’ve gone under; their disappearances are audible, like so many small stones raining down. Now, the eagle flares wings, then drops, talons extended, splashing down like an off-kilter parachute, perhaps right atop one of the swimming brown streaks. But it is a mostly graceless attempt, followed by a labored rowing of wings on the water to get – finally, with empty claws – airborne again. All this work, the eagle’s affect seems to say. But once soaring again, the bird’s menace returns, eliciting more squawked protest and more darting in all directions.
After a minute of circling, the eagle appears to tire and wings off to perch in a white pine hundreds of yards away; once there, he vanishes from our sight, and we look back to the ducks, who have begun to gather again into their usual softly chuckling conversations. Then – ALARUM! a gabble of cluck-squawks! Who spotted the eagle is unclear, but well before he arrives to search again in circles for a slow duck, fowl consternation rises and the webbed feet flurry. There must be a lookout duck in the group; does every covey have its lookout? More little geysers of spray as they dive – it is as if they have all drilled for this moment, though they also pop back up quickly enough to suggest that a forward-looking eagle should be able to nab one as he or she emerges. But no, there’s no more awkward eagle-diving, only circling, which goes on for another long minute before its time for another pine rest.
And then, a minute or so later, the eagle leaves, flying upcoast for, who knows? – dumber ducks, slow fish, perhaps an attempt to shakedown a more efficient osprey, who, unlike our eagle, dives often and comes up with food sometimes.
But for three minutes we have been admitted to an avian theater with three, floating front-row seats.