Earth and Beyond host and producer Robin Song describes an unusual drama between a bald eagle and a raven, and other observations of autumn. Audio is 7 min 15 sec. Text and photos follow audio.
It had been a rainy autumn, so far, and when the weather report predicted a few days of sunshine, I planned to do some hiking before the rains settled in again. I knew each rain storm would send more golden leaves twirling to the ground until more would be on the ground than on the birch trees and the lovely autumn splendor would be over for another year. I especially wanted to get photos of Denali with blazing gold birches in the foreground and blue sky above, if I could. In early September I headed for a spot above the Big Susitna River where I knew of a view of Denali from a bluff just south of the mouth of Montana Creek. Dogs romping ahead of me in the yellow leaves covering the sunlit trail, it was a perfect autumn day. I was surprised not to see any sign of life as I stepped to the edge of the bluff. In prior years I had stood on that spot and watched gulls, ravens, magpies and eagles- all there to dine on the remains of spawned-out salmon. Beaver and muskrats had paddled back and forth in the silty water, and many varieties of songbirds had flitted amongst the trees in the forest all along the river. Last year I had watched a small flock of white-fronted geese across the river from this very spot, walking on the shoreline, grazing in the yellowing grass at the river’s edge, getting ready to migrate on south.
But now there was nothing- not even fish carcasses on the shoreline. No songbirds called from the forest, no ravens flew overhead, and no gulls sat on the sandbars. Denali was in full view- the glorious summit etched in a blue sky above the tree line, the river winding along its ancient path below. All perfect, save for the strange lack of animal life. Then a shadow caught my eye. I glanced up in time to see an immature bald eagle gliding by, its crop distended. I guessed it had been feeding on salmon remains. I snapped photos as it banked and flew across the river, heading west. It soon disappeared from my view over the belt of golden birch trees. I felt encouraged. I moved along the bluff to take photos of bright red high-bush cranberry leaves with Denali in the background. I heard a raven call and watched the bird come winging upriver. It curved and dropped down onto the shore opposite from where I was standing. It hopped in typical raven fashion over to a salmon carcass that I hadn’t noticed before now. It began to tear at the salmon and in a few seconds a shadow blinked across the sun- the eagle had returned.
It was the same immature and it banked sharply and landed a few yards from the raven. It stood watching the raven. I quickly set up the camera’s zoom lens on the monopod, getting ready in case something happened. I wasn’t disappointed. In a few minutes the young eagle strode purposefully over to the raven and spread its great wings as it drew near. The raven hopped away at the last moment, relinquishing the salmon. The eagle started to tear at the carcass. Then things got interesting. After a few seconds, the raven leaped up into the air until it was just a few yards directly over the eagle, then it dropped down towards to eagle, wings spread, swooping and repeating its dive again. The eagle was startled and reacted by ducking, spreading its wings, pointing its beak up at the raven, then springing up as the raven flew back up, then twisting its body to fling its legs up at the raven the next time the black bird dropped back down at the eagle. The raven neatly dodged the eagle’s talons and swept upwards again, then dropped back down at the eagle. This happened a few more times, then the eagle had had enough and loped awkwardly away, relinquishing the salmon to the raven, which landed near the carcass as soon as the eagle vacated it. The raven hopped over to the fish and once again began to tear at it while the eagle stood a few yards away and watched.
I was amazed that the eagle, which was at least two and a half times the size of the raven, had given up the salmon to the corvid. When I had gone to Haines in November of 2009 to photograph the spectacle of The Gathering of Eagles along the Chilcat River, at no time did any of the several hundreds of eagles come to feast on the late run of chum salmon ever give way to the ravens.
But here was this pair, all alone on the shore of the Big Su, duking it out over this one salmon. As I stood watching, taking photos over the next twenty minutes or so, the eagle went back to the salmon a total of four times, approaching with wings spread, beak open. Each time the raven stood its ground until the last second then sprang away. The eagle would start to tear at the carcass, the raven watching, then the raven would fly up into the air and dive at the eagle, who would then freak out in an explosion of feathers as it ducked and flipped, tail spread, beak open wide, legs and feet slashing at the dodging raven. All was done in silence. There was no wind to carry sound away, yet I heard nothing. No cawing from the raven, no screams from the eagle.
I wondered if this pair had followed each other around during the fish season, and if this had become a routine they had worked out. I wondered if the eagle would open a salmon carcass and eat and then the raven would move in and take it from the young eagle. Perhaps it was an older raven teaching the immature eagle to stand its ground and not give up its food. Maybe as the eagle matured it would gain more confidence. Or perhaps it was a young raven testing its own confidence.
After the fourth attempt the eagle did not go back, but flew to a nearby mound of driftwood and stood on top of it, watching the raven and a magpie, which had flown in and was also dining on the salmon. After a few more minutes the raven flew over to the driftwood mound and stood near the eagle. The eagle turned its head to watch the raven, which was standing behind it. The pair remained like this for about half a minute, then the raven launched and flew upriver, cawing as it flew. It disappeared around a bend, its caws becoming fainter. I watched the eagle, expecting it to fly over to the salmon and have its feast. To my surprise, it did not, but remained standing on the driftwood mound. It turned sideways to me, facing upriver, and I could see that its crop was full. I waited to see if it was going to launch, but it seemed content to stay on the mound. The clouds had obscured Denali’s summit, and I decided to wake my dozing dogs and head on back. I sent a mental ‘thank you’ to the eagle and the raven. Why that drama had taken place, I will never know. Nature keeps her secrets. I was just happy to be a humble observer on a lovely autumn day, for once in the right place at the right time.
photos by Robin Song