An Eye For The Eagle [65]

By Adrian Clayton

In September this year I was in a sizeable group of kayakers in Middle Harbour (Sydney) just approaching the southern boundary of Garigal National Park when a White-bellied Sea-Eagle swooped swiftly in an attempt to pick up a feed out of the water no more than 20 metres from us. It proved to be a dry run for whatever the prey; it managed to escape the eagle’s sharp talons. The bird resumed its hunt and we paddled on. A few minutes later there was an excited cry from someone at the rear of the group, “Look, look at the eagle!” We all turned around to see a Little Penguin in the clutches of the eagle whose giant wings laboured as it slowly gained height only metres above the water. The poor unfortunate captive was suffering the indignity of being carried upside down towards its brutal end. The eagle landed on a low overhanging bough near us and started to administer the coup de grace. However, the perch was not secure enough to allow it to complete the task and it took off for a stouter bough about 25 metres in front of us. As we passed under the new perch, the finer feathers of the poor victim drifted down around us.

One of the aspects of sea kayaking that many of us enjoy is the opportunity it provides to have close encounters with some of the other creatures with whom we share the planet. Dolphins, whales, seals, turtles, sharks, dugong – chances are we have all experienced close-up special moments with creatures such as these. With most of these encounters, it’s a case of being in the right place at the right time. However, there are some creatures that you can just about guarantee finding – so long as you know where to look. The imperious White-bellied Sea Eagle is one such creature.

The White-bellied Sea-Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) is the second largest bird-of-prey (behind the Wedge-tailed Eagle) found in Australia. The mature female bird is around 85cm from head to tail; the male bird is smaller – around 75cm. The wing span is close to 2m and a mature bird weighs in the vicinity of 4kg.

The sea-eagle can be found around the coastline of Australia and in some of our coastal river lands. The species is also found in New Guinea, Indonesia, China, South-east Asia and India. Most reports indicate that it has a life span of 30 years, reaching maturity (and distinctive adult markings) at around four years.

In flight, the sea-eagle can be easily identified at a distance by its upswept (dihedral) wings when gliding. Its call is quite distinctive – a repetitive goose-like honk.

The bird’s eyesight is extraordinary – it can easily observe a surface-feeding fish at 100 metres. The abundance of available food determines just how closely different pairs nest. I have identified pairs nesting within a kilometre of each other. They defend their territory with great vigour.

The nest of the White-bellied Sea-Eagle is very large, built of sticks. Usually, it’s found in the fork of a dominant tree. Examples seen from the water include a nest in Patonga Creek and on Little Island, Smiths Lake (see photo). During the breeding season (May to October), the nest is lined with fresh green leaves and twigs. A clutch of two eggs is laid with incubation shared but mostly the responsibility of the female bird. I have read reports of the first-hatched bird killing its sibling.

My interest in White-bellied Sea-Eagles goes back about seven years when I first started identifying them in different locations in the Great Lakes region (which takes in Myall, Wallis and Smiths lakes) on the Mid-North coast of New South Wales. The bird mates for life so when you see one you stand a reasonable chance of finding its mate. Given their top-the-of-heap status, I gave them names that I thought suited. There was Bob and Hazel (or was it Bob and Blanche?), Paul and Anita, John and Janette, Gough and Margaret, Malcolm and Tammy. I think I got as far back as Harold and Zara before I tired of the game. I began identifying their favourite perches, their respective territories and in some cases managed to discover their nests from my kayak.

I have had some special, eye-opening encounters with White-bellied Sea-Eagles. I have seen them act out the extremes of their behaviour – from displaying true affection for their mate to the ruthlessness they use to hunt and kill. These encounters include:

Flying displays – a parent bird teaching one of its offspring the art of a tumbling free-fall, both birds with talons extended and almost locking. I am not sure whether this skill relates to courtship or is a defence against attack.

Two different pairs, seen on the same day, enjoying a cuddle, with a wing of one bird tenderly wrapped around its partner.

At the end of an early morning paddle at Elizabeth Beach, two sea eagles flying nearly 600 metres to bully a pair of Whistling Kites out of some new-found carrion – the approach reminding me of images from Tora, Tora, Tora! And then their teamwork as one of the eagles provided aerial cover to ward off the aggrieved kites while its bounty-laden partner made a laboured climb towards a suitable perch to savour the prize.

On the Bombah Broadwater approaching the head of the Lower Myall River at Tamboy, two pairs dogfighting in disputed territory and then separating and being kept apart by an invisible barrier.

At the brutal end of the scale I have seen sea-eagles picking off cygnet, pelican chicks and sizeable fish (and not forgetting the hapless Little Penguin referred to earlier).

Next time you go for a paddle in a remote area keep your eye out for the White-bellied Sea-Eagle. It won’t be hard to spot, particularly if the sun is reflecting off its brilliant white breast and belly. When you revisit, chances are you’ll find it in the near vicinity – maybe with its mate.

And maybe you too will become as enthralled with this creature as I am.