“Self,” I said to myself, “it is Thursday. You have used up all your New York blogging material. You need something to write about.”
“Well, self,” I replied, “it would probably help if you took your nose of your book and went outside.”
This seemed sensible, so I did.
A cold front had passed over earlier in the day, spitting rain, but the weather as I left my apartment was bright and pleasant if a bit too breezy for optimal birding. I strapped on my binoculars, walked out my door and down to the river.
In case you have forgotten, this is what I have out my front door.
It wasn’t long before I was seeing the usual birds – Black-billed Magpies, Black-capped Chickadees, Eastern Kingbirds, a lone Red-breasted Merganser dozing on a log washed down from the mountains by early summer’s floods. My attention was drawn upward by the elegant flying-knife form of an Osprey bearing a large fish. I identified it, smiled at its luck, and moved on.
I had gone only a few more yards when I heard something else that is common in Missoula, but always worth a look: the croaking of a pair of Common Ravens. The two were flying in formation, close to the canyon wall, on the other side of the trail from the river.
As I watched a third bird joined them, or more accurately, they closed in on it – it was none other than the Osprey, still carrying the fish. Harassed by the Ravens, it landed on a snag halfway up the cliff and hunched over its prize protectively. One of the Ravens landed just below it on the same snag, while the other took up a post on a nearby rocky outcropping. I began to wish very much that I owned a working camera.
Because of their tremendous wingspans I think of Ospreys as much bigger birds than Ravens. I was momentarily startled to note that they were pretty equally matched in body size.
Such technical considerations were soon swept away by the drama of the moment, though. The Osprey’s voice always sounds plaintive, and this one called out again and again. The Raven on the branch responded with a low chuckling croak. It flared its wings, and the Osprey flared to match but refused to abandon the fish.
After a solid minute’s stand-off, the Ravens decided that the Osprey could not be bluffed and flew off. The Osprey still seemed nervous, though, and kept craning its head around in their last known direction between beakfuls of fish.
I moved on up the river, and soon discovered that the Osprey need not have worried. The Ravens – at least, I presume they were the same pair – swept into view again, this time engaged with a different foe – a juvenile Bald Eagle. This bird had no prey, and I suspect that the Ravens simply wanted it out of their territory.
If the Osprey made the Ravens look big, the Eagle shrunk them down by comparison. I doubt this young bird had the full 7-foot wingspan that the species can achieve – in fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it only had a few inches, wingspan-wise, on the Osprey. The bulk of its body was another story altogether. And then there were its massive talons, which it splayed at the Ravens as it tried awkwardly to roll in mid-air and confront them. If these two events were fables, the Ravens would have switched roles in mere minutes from big hulking bullies to cunning, dogged little fighters. This is something to bear in mind when reading fables.
The Eagle kept trying to roll, or crane its neck back and bite the pursuers, or drop back and get behind them to attack. It wasn’t very successful, and a few times it nearly hit the wall of the cliff in its attempts. Rather than simply flee, though, it eventually also found refuge in landing, on a small pine at the very crest of the cliff.
The Ravens also landed, and soon became invisible in the dense conifer. I can’t tell you how long they stayed there, because I was distracted by a bustle in the hedges behind me – a bustle that turned out to be an unusually confiding, or perhaps unusually annoyed, Spotted Towhee (Towhees often look annoyed to me, because of their orange eyes.) It popped up and stared at me until I left, once again cursing my lack of camera.
Consolation prize from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
As I passed the snag where the adventure had started, I saw that the Osprey was still working on its meal. A second Osprey – maybe the one that the first had been calling for? – circled past, but too late. The first Osprey was not, it seemed, in the mood to share.
Picture of my front yard courtesy of Chuk Radder
Towhee photo by David Menke of USFWS