An Icy Eagle Encounter

The Bald Eagles were brawling on the ice.

At least, that’s what I thought I saw. I had been watching two juveniles for about twenty minutes.  Motionless in the frigid wind howling over Lake Allegan’s ice, the eagles appeared to be scanning for fish.

That was unusual, however. Our eagles typically conduct surveillance from high in the nearby trees. An island—aptly named Eagle Island by Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources—provides a broad view of the surrounding water. But these birds stood next to a narrow gap in the ice. Their horizontal line of sight would allow only a limited view of open water flowing in the lake’s main channel.

Then, as I pondered, one of the eagles dive-bombed the other. Perhaps they were not fishing, after all. Were they having an avian tiff?

Their fisticuffs certainly looked like a squabble. Feathers splayed, talons engaged, and within seconds, one bird hit the icy deck.

And then it was over. Both birds folded their wings and calmly resumed their non-aggressive postures.

After reviewing the video dozens of times, I have a new hypothesis that might explain the eagles’ rough-and-tumble behavior. Here’s a snippet showing their icy encounter. Take a look, and then read on.

My hypothesis: I think we’re looking at an amateur flyer! I believe the bird in flight miscalculated the wind velocity and made an unplanned (and most inelegant) landing on the other bird’s head. And did you notice the slip ‘n slide maneuver when he returned to his feet?

These eagles have no sign of the iconic Bald Eagle white head and tail, suggesting they’re quite young. Bald Eagles aren’t fully decked with those white features until they’re five years old. In the video, the low light and distance make it difficult to study their plumage, but I’d guess these are first- or second-year juveniles. Which might also explain why they were not fishing more strategically, from the island’s superior vantage point.

Aggressor or amateur—what did you see?

4 thoughts on “An Icy Eagle Encounter”

  1. I think you have hit on something that makes sense. We see young eagles flying around acting like they are dive bombing each other in the air. They also don’t have sophisticated hunting or protection skills. More than once we have seen adult eagles chase young birds away and steal a fish they were eating on the ice. Love watching the eagles. They live in the tall trees around our bay. I did not know they can see better from up there until you said so. We always thought flying over the water was the way they hunted. Thanks for sharing. CB

    1. Carol, they do fly over the water to hunt, but we often see them perched, surveying the water, and then they dash low over the lake to get something that caught their eye. My thought in my blog post was that they were standing around on the ice next to a tiny sliver of open water. Their opportunity to see fish movement was pretty limited compared to a higher line of sight. Thanks for reading and commenting, and I’m so glad to hear that your eagle spottings continue after you left Lake Allegan!

  2. Thanks for another great post. Reading and watching provides a sweet interlude in my day. Just had our first snow here, but I suspect all three inches will be gone by tomorrow.

    1. Our snow is gone, too, and with the relative warmth, the eagles disperse. Our lake rarely freezes over because it’s a dammed river, so the water flows. When we’re back to the deep freeze, other area lakes will ice over, and these guys–perhaps a little wiser! Will return. Thanks for reading and commenting, Ginny.

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