November 24, 2011 by Joseph C. Neal
We have Bald Eagles every year in Arkansas, including nesting birds. But there was a time, 25 years ago, when Bald Eagles were all but extinct in the state. Just to remind everybody: these eagles plus many other kinds of large birds, including many hawks and pelicans, were hard hit by the widespread use of certain chemicals on crops. The most infamous was DDT. When DDT began to show up in human mother’s milk, protective laws were finally enacted. What was designed to protect mother also protected big birds, like Bald Eagles. They bounced back from a single nest in the entire state in the early 1980s, to over 100 now. There are at least three known nests around Beaver Lake.
The take home message: sensible laws that protect our health and well-being can also protect the health and well-being of creatures with whom we share earth.
Well, this is a long-winded introduction to the arrival in Northwest Arkansas of eagles that nested up north. They have come south for winter. Folks who spend a fair amount of time watching water birds in Arkansas know that as American Coots begin arriving here in big numbers, eagles come in on about the same schedule. Generally speaking, where there are a bunch of coots, there is an eagle or two. If you watch long enough, you see very tight coot rafts — a defensive mechanism that makes it hard for an eagle to pick out a single coot– but here and there, an eagle succeeds in catching one. In Northwest Arkansas you can see this in places with lots of wintering coots like Bob Kidd Lake, Lake Fayetteville, etc.
I was up at Beaver Lake this week and watched as an adult Bald Eagle slowly descended, legs dangling, over a tight coot raft of 30-40 coots. Soon there were four adult eagles working this one raft. More eagles were on a nearby sandy beach. Maybe eating coot? I couldn’t tell, but within minutes 10 eagles (seven adults, three subadults) were low in the air over the coots, with lots of leg dangling. It looked like they were taking turns working the raft. Eventually, one coot was caught, but just as the eagle lifted it up, the bird fell from its talons. A juvenile eagle quickly flopped down in the water atop the coot, and eventually hoisted out of the water, coot in its talons — and dropped it! This was repeated at least eight times, by both adults and juveniles, always involving one coot. The young eagles always went fully into the water and fussed around a bit before rising. The adults never did this, only plunging talons first, but not body into water.
The American Coot, of course, was long dead, but I’m not sure how all of this turned out. A newly arrived flock of 45 Bonaparte’s Gulls flew over, taking my concentration upriver with them.