Avian Dog Fight

The shadows stretched long as my wife, daughter, and I drove to our friends’ ranch to catch a few fish on the Madison. Getting out of the car we noticed a commotion above us. Three ospreys flew around erratically; then we saw an eagle, and then another, talons outstretched and beaks open. My wife pointed out that one was a bald eagle and the other a golden (though the latter may have been a juvenile bald, we’re not sure). We watched open-mouthed as the two eagles hurled themselves at each other and slammed together. We half expected them to fall to the ground—but as quickly as they had arrived, they flew away in different directions. The ospreys fled into the trees and the eagles took off toward the horizon. 

A little bewildered, we strung up our fly rods and walked toward the river. We crossed the footbridge over a feeder stream, and tried our favorite spot: a side-channel next to an island just upriver from the mouth of the creek. No bites there, so we moved upstream across a pasture, and climbed a fence to a hole just below another island. Despite no fish rising, I managed to catch a single nine-inch rainbow trout. We moved back to the side-channel and tried it again with no success. Darkness was approaching, so we gave up and walked back toward the footbridge.

Just then, an osprey flew overhead toward the river, carrying a small rodent, apparently intending to light in a tree and enjoy its dinner. We thought that was unusual, because ospreys are primarily fish eaters; but we had little time to think on it as my wife yelled, “Here comes an eagle!” My nine-year-old daughter chimed in, “It’s the golden eagle!” We stood transfixed as the huge eagle chased the osprey, the latter employing tactical maneuvers to evade its pursuer. Just like an old WWII aerial dogfight, the chase unfolded: the eagle was faster, but the osprey could make tighter turns; just as the eagle closed the distance between them, the osprey would make a sharp turn and gain back some breathing room. 

After a few minutes, another osprey approached the battle, presumably to offer some help—but it was too late. The chase had migrated toward the stand of alders along the creek, and since the birds were below the height of the trees, the osprey ran out of room for evasive maneuvers. The osprey turned toward the highway along the tree line, the eagle right on its tail and closing in fast. Then, as we watched, astounded at the spectacle, the osprey gave up and dropped the rodent. Any lingering doubts about the eagle’s motives were gone, as it immediately broke off the chase. It dove in a free-fall and caught the rodent ten feet above the ground. The eagle flew away to enjoy its ill-gotten meal, while the osprey flew back to its nest, happy to be alive and resigned to sleep with an empty stomach.