Witnessing the Ugly Side of Birding

The Bald Eagle flew shortly after I arrived on the scene.

At first, I did a double-take.

My wife and I had just turned the corner onto Erickson Ave. just west of Harrisonburg, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. As we passed the Word Ministries Christian Church entrance, I noticed two large birds to my left, just south of the church.

Both birds furiously flapped their wings. But there was something extraordinary about what we were seeing. My wife observed that they both appeared to have white heads.

I initially thought we were watching two Bald Eagles interacting. But the eagle was riding the back of the other bird, steadily forcing it to the ground. I tried to keep an eye on the plummeting birds while slowly driving. Fortunately, there was no traffic.

The birds, still locked together, disappeared from view since the roadway was below the level of the sloping land. We were on our way home from church, so I dropped off my wife at the house since dinner was in the oven. I grabbed my camera and binoculars and hurried back to the scene.

The birds had flown northwest over a woods that lines the crest of a hill that separates the city from the county. The hostile interaction began when they got to the clearing south of the church.

My first view of the Bald Eagle.

I drove to the southwest corner of the parking lot and, from my vehicle, immediately spotted the Bald Eagle sitting in the open field. Through my binoculars, I saw the other bird. It was an Osprey, looking directly toward the eagle.

Within a minute, the eagle flew up and began circling overhead in vast swaths. I drove up to be closer to the Osprey. It was clear that this beautiful bird of prey was severely injured.

Ospreys and Bald Eagles often use the same habitat since both species are skilled at plucking fish from bodies of water. If one catches a fish, the other will pester the bird with its lunch to get it to drop it. Usually, it’s the eagle that chases the Osprey.

But we were nowhere near a large stream, lake, or pond. I wondered what had happened to cause the eagle to be so aggressive toward the Osprey. I took some photos and then turned my attention to finding help for the poor bird.

I posted on a local bird club Facebook page about my dilemma. Within minutes, birders suggested I contact the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro. That’s what I did.

The injured Osprey.

Since it was a Sunday, I expected the call to go to voicemail. But on the second ring, a young woman answered. I explained the situation, and she sent me a text with five names and phone numbers of trained wildlife rescue transporters to contact.

All the while, word quickly spread in the local avian network. Black Vultures, American Crows, and Common Grackles began circling overhead. A Cooper’s Hawk zoomed into a nearby tree. The eagle, however, was gone.

The first transporter I called answered right away. Unfortunately, the woman couldn’t help because she was driving to her daughter’s bridal shower. None of the other people responded.

Then I thought of Clair. I should have called him right away. Clair Mellinger is a retired biology professor emeritus from Eastern Mennonite University, and he lives just a quarter of a mile away.

Fortunately, Clair was home, and he told me that he was a trained transporter and had taken birds to the Wildlife Center before. He and his wife arrived in a few minutes.

Ospreys have razor-sharp talons and a sharp beak designed to tear apart the flesh of the prey they catch. Clair was ready. His pants were tucked into his hiking boots. He wore a thick jacket and gloves and carried a blanket to throw over the bird.

As Clair approached the Osprey, he could see just how badly injured the bird was. Its left wing was broken, and it wasn’t able to walk. So, picking up the bird was easier than we had expected.

Clair Mellinger with the injured Osprey.

The bird didn’t squawk or even try to move as Clair carefully carried the Osprey to the trunk of his car. He placed it in a plastic milk crate, put another one on top, and bound the two with bungee cords.

Before he left, Clair told me that he had never seen an eagle be so aggressive. The injuries were that bad.

I hoped the Osprey and its human escorts were on their way to a good outcome. The Virginia Wildlife Center is a noted rehab center.

Unfortunately, the eagle severely injured the Osprey; there was nothing the veterinarian at the center could do. An email informed me that the bird died in surgery the next day.

As an avid amateur birder, the news saddened me. I was happy to have an expert and trained birder like Clair to call on in this time of urgent need. And I was grateful to the rehab center for their efforts in trying to save the Osprey.

Clair told me that he figured that the Osprey was on its northern migration and passed through the eagle’s territory. Nesting eagles in the Shenandoah Valley are either currently incubating eggs or feeding young that have hatched.

This fact could have accounted for the once-in-a-lifetime altercation that my wife and I witnessed. We only wished the events would have had a better outcome for the Osprey.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2022

Author: Bruce Stambaugh

Writer, marketer, columnist, author, photographer, birder, walker, hiker, husband, father, grandfather, brother, son, township trustee, converted Anabaptist, community activist, my life is crammed with all things people and nature and wonder. My late father gave me this penchant for giving and getting the most out of life, my late mother the courtesy, kindness, and creativity to see the joy in life. They both taught me to cherish the people I am with. I try and fail and try again.

3 thoughts on “Witnessing the Ugly Side of Birding”

  1. Interesting though sad story! BTW, the Mellingers were “house parents” for an intentional community group that I was in and 14 of us lived in a house together my sophomore year of college. 🙂 I’m sure it was a relief for you to be able to call Clair.

    Liked by 1 person

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