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

Standoff at Cooks Creek

black angus steer, bald eagle, Harrisonburg VA
Standoff at Cooks Creek.

Birding is so much fun. You just never know what you will find, see happen, and be able to document.

As I was returning home recently, I spotted a Bald Eagle high in a sycamore tree right beside the highway. I turned the car around as quickly and safely as I could and parked well away from the bird. Just as I exited my vehicle, the eagle flew low across Cooks Creek and landed in a pasture field. I was in luck but didn’t know just how fortunate I would be.

As I hurried along the roadway, I noticed a black Angus steer move towards the eagle. The steer was about half-way between the eagle and me. Soon it broke into a gallop, which drew the eagle’s full attention. The steer stopped at the west side of the creek bank opposite the eagle on the east side.

If they had a discussion between them, it was short. The steer bounded down the embankment and towards the eagle. Of course, the eagle flew straight back for the sycamore tree. At the last second, the magnificent bird changed course and zoomed back over the steer and out of sight.

Whether you are a birder or not, this indeed was a once in a lifetime occurrence. I’m exceedingly glad I got to see and document it.

“Standoff at Cooks Creek” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

The Eagle Has Landed

bald eagle, Holmes Co. OH
The Eagle Has Landed.

The frantic knock on the front door got my attention. In my dash down the hall and to the front entrance, I wondered if someone was in need of help. Had there been another crash on our busy county highway?

When I flung open the door, there stood my neighbor smiling. My negative concerns immediately vanished. I shook Doug’s hand as he excitedly exclaimed that an eagle was sitting in a tree across the road from his house. I quickly retreated to my office and grabbed my camera with the long lens. As we rushed over to his front yard, Doug told me how he came to see our nation’s icon.

As he drove over the hill south of our homes, Doug saw the eagle circling overhead and then dive to the grass on the east side of the road where a roadkill raccoon laid. As his car passed the big bird, it flew to a branch low in a thicket of trees only a few yards away.

I concealed myself as best I could behind a large tree trunk at the corner of Doug’s yard. The camera’s shutter clicked away as other drivers zipped along the road unaware of the sight they were missing. The many branches in front of the eagle made it rather difficult for me to focus the lens. When I looked down at the camera to check the quality of the shots, the eagle flew east, leaving his intended meal behind.

“The Eagle Has Landed” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

Rejoicing with others along life’s variable journey

Seneca Rocks
Seneca Rocks, WV. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

I sat on the picnic table for nearly two hours admiring the scenery and serenity all around me. I hadn’t planned on staying that long. Life’s events have a way of altering your plans.

The previous day I had safely delivered our granddaughter back to her parents in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. On the way home, I wanted to hike up the enchanting Seneca Rocks, one of the best-known landmarks in West Virginia.

I had previously taken several photos of this fascinating rock formation that juts straight into the sky. But I never had time to climb it. I did this trip.

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The switchback trail to the viewing platform at the north end of the ancient rock outcropping extends a mile and a half. In that short distance, the trail climbs 1,000 ft.

The cool morning was perfect for my adventure. An overnight cold front had cleared out the heat and humidity.

The trailhead began at the restored home of an early pioneer settler. A tour of the Sites homestead is informative and interesting. I could have been satisfied to watch the dozens of butterflies that flitted around the bee balm. But I had come to hike.

I only walked a few yards when I came to a pedestrian bridge that crossed a delightful river, the South Fork of the North Branch of the Potomac River to be exact. The stream’s lengthy name didn’t do justice to its placid beauty.

Once across the rock-laden river, the switchbacks began. I was more surprised about the excellent condition of the trail than its sudden steepness. A light breeze kept the insects away as I forged ahead beneath the leafy canopy high overhead.

It was comfortable walking in the shade of both the forest and the quartzite cliff, thrust upright from its original horizontal position millennia ago. I had the trail to myself until some early morning hikers passed me on their way down.

I made it to the viewing platform in 40 minutes. The sun’s strengthening light bathed the valley below and the mountains beyond. The businesses, houses and vehicles all looked like toys.

Just as I stepped onto the viewing area that protrudes away from the rock face, a southwest breeze picked up. Soon Turkey Vultures began to soar on the developing vortexes. I glanced back down to the river to discover an adult Bald Eagle had also started to circle in the quickly warming air. In just a few elongated loops, the magnificent bird was high above my head.

I think I smiled all the way back down to the car. I moved to a shaded picnic table to rest and eat the light lunch I had packed. As I ate, I scanned the still shaded western face of the Seneca Rocks with my binoculars.

Instead of birds, I found first one, then three, then 10 rock climbers scaling the huge, craggy outcropping. I was entranced.

I sat beneath a shade tree observing these men and women pick their way up this sacred place. One brave guy didn’t even use ropes.

I waited to leave until all had made it safely to the summit. I admired their courage, their determination, and their adept skills.

I was pleased to have walked to the top and back. It was even more satisfying seeing these remarkable folks reach their destination. They celebrated their perilous journey with fist pumps and shouts of joy that echoed far across the valley into my soul.

reaching the summit
Celebration time. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

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