Over the past few weeks, as I cruise the streets, alleys, and parks in my lake hugging Northwestern Montana town, I notice an occasional large dead bird. They turn out to be coots. American Coots, white beaked, black water fowl that I rarely notice the rest of the year. Yet in winter, they create massive flotillas on this end of the winter lake that seem to stretch for miles.
One year when the lake froze over during a sudden mercury plummet, hundreds of hapless coots became trapped in the ice. Later that day, a convention of bald eagles converged on the spot right on Highway 93, near KwaTaqNuk. They settled on the ice to eat coots, leaving a good distance between themselves and neighboring diners. Also converging on the site of this quiet massacre were bird watchers with the longest telephoto lenses you've ever seen.
So back to the dead coots. This year word has gone out on the eagle telegraph and these massive birds of prey, symbol of our great land, have been spotted in treetops around the lake and river. Apparently, they are back to supplement their diet with more American Coot. My friend and avid bird photographer, Eugene says that the dead birds on the ground are the ones that the eagles couldn't manage to carry all the way to the treetops.
Think about the logistics of this. An American Bald Eagle weighs ten to fourteen pounds and a coot weighs in at about one pound. Add some ice and water clinging to feathers, a hundred pounds of survival instinct, and some disproportionately large, dragon-ugly feet aiming for your eyes, and coots suddenly don't look like such an easy lunch. Add to that an aerial, 'water pluck' with major eagle competition on your flight path and making it to a high branch still in possession of edibles becomes a real long shot. So much easier when they are stuck in the ice.
My other photographer friend, Janice Myers, took this photo a few Saturdays ago looking downriver from Riverside Park. Jan pursues photo ops from one end of the valley to the other, in her lemon meringue VW Bug. This magnificent American Bald Eagle might have just finished off an unlucky coot or be about to go find one.
When you venture outside into the byways of your little town, you just never know what you might run across. Who knew this high drama was taking place right under our noses.
Just this morning in Riverside Park, three or four plastic sled carcasses appeared. They could have been under the snow that just melted off, or were flung there when they couldn't cut the mustard any more. I imagine they gave their last polypropylene gasp on a heart bouncing race to the bottom. Now sliding days will be at a premium since the hard packed base coat has given way to greening grass blades and warmer weather. We're not fooled, though. We have lots of winter left for slip sliding down alleys and watching those clouds of waxwings and starlings that have been ravaging winter wild cherry and mountain ash trees.
If you happen to notice one of those dead coots on the ground near the river or lake, check out their legs and feet. Talk about weird!
Photo credit for American Coot: Peter S. Weber copywright
Happy Hunting, whatever it is you're after!