A young Bald Eagle trying to grab a Redhead duck.
By DON MORROW
When I reached the outer levee at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge it was almost first light and there was a half-moon hanging in a lonely starless sky. Across the salt marsh, the receding edge of last night’s front formed a low gray border on the Eastern horizon. A light cream-colored band separated it from the pure pale blue of the morning sky.
It was cold, just 50 degrees. I walked north on the levee into a brisk wind until I reached the “Closed Wildlife Area” sign, set up my scope and began to scan Mounds Pool III. A large flock of Snowy Egrets was flying off to begin a day of foraging and, as the sun rose, it burned red holes in the clouds hugging the marsh.
The south end of Mounds Pool III is a good spot for Mallards, Northern Pintails and my target bird, the American Black Duck. St. Marks is the only reliable place in Florida for them and they can usually be found associated with Mallards. I found only one mixed in with thirty-one Mallards. It’s likely that there are more out there, hidden by the marsh grasses.
I moved on and birded my way back to my car, finding the usual winter woodland species: Gray Catbird, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Then, I drove down to the Lighthouse parking lot.
At first, I just sat in my car. It was getting colder and the wind was howling as it came across the water. My car was relatively warm and I didn’t want to leave. Nearshore birds were flying: Brown Pelicans, Ring-billed Gulls, Double-crested Cormorants and a single Royal Tern. Out on the surface of the Apalachee Bay, I could see ducks, Bufflehead, Redhead, scaup and a few Red-breasted Mergansers.
Then, from my left birds started flying, mostly a big flock of Redheads, but including other ducks, cormorants and gulls. Something had disturbed them. I stepped out into the cold to get a better look and saw a hovering Bald Eagle. It was a young bird, dark with scattered white feathering on its belly and underwing. Probably, a 3-year-old. It dropped toward the water and then flew back up, flapping against the strong morning wind to stay in place.
When the eagle had attacked, one bird out of the group of birds on the water, had chosen to dive rather than fly. The eagle was now staying above it. Every time it surfaced for air, the eagle dropped to try to grab it. On its fifth attempt, the young eagle settled into the water. It sat for a moment and then with great and labored effort, lifted off.
As it rose off the water, I could see that it was grasping a Redhead by the head and neck. The Redhead started flapping. It wasn’t giving up. The eagle dropped it, flew up and swung around, but the duck had disappeared. The eagle flew over and landed on the old boathouse pilings. It waited a moment and then flew off.
I pulled my scope out of the car and scanned the water, looking for the duck. I found it sitting on the water looking around nervously. It didn’t show any obvious signs of damage. I watched it for about 20 minutes as it slowly swam out into deeper water. It flapped its wings, once, but never flew.
Wintering eagles at St. Marks rely heavily on coots, ducks and gallinules, but are opportunistic and will take fish, herons and small mammals. Their hunting success varies on any individual attempt, but there are enough opportunities available to them to keep them well fed.
There’s a lot happening at the refuge, right now. A Long-tailed Duck and a Surf Scoter are being seen in the mouth of the St. Marks River. A wintering Nashville Warbler is lurking along the roadside adjacent to Lighthouse Pool and the long-running American Flamingo can be found on Lighthouse Pool or on offshore bars.
St. Marks winter ducks are still here, but if you want to see them, come down soon. The Red Maples along East River have begun to flower and the Great Wheel of the Seasons has started to shift. By early February, our ducks will start to leave and the refuge’s first spring migrants, Purple Martins and Northern Parulas will begin to arrive.
Don Morrow can be reached at email@example.com.