A rare aerial encounter
The situation was not unlike a scene from the Battle of Britain: an ungainly, heavy bomber in the hands of a novice pilot trying to get airborne as a deadly enemy fighter swooped in from the sun.
A little fanciful perhaps, particularly as the sun was behind heavy cloud and this was a bird fight, not a ‘dog fight’. But the confrontation was nonetheless breathtaking, and a new experience for me.
Dunn Road swamp, not far from my house at Yorkey’s Knob north of Cairns, is a favourite photography location. This day, I had taken a visitor from New Zealand in the expectation of seeing some waders, but the swamp was almost dry and only a few black-fronted dotterels remained.
We were about to leave when a previously unseen juvenile black-necked stork (jabiru) erupted from a patch of mangroves and lumbered – all wings and dangling legs – into the sky. Out of nowhere swooped a mature, powerfully armed white-belled sea eagle – unquestionably intent on bringing the young stork down.
Although about half the body size of the stork, the eagle’s heavy bill and massive talons represented a serious threat.
Repeatedly over several minutes the sea eagle got within a few centimetres and raised its talons to strike. Each time, the stork tumbled away, seemingly out of control, to the relative safety of the mangroves.
Classic raptor ruse
After a few slow circles the sea eagle would then move off as if it had given up the hunt. The young BKS would then re-emerged to make another dash for it – insufficiently experienced perhaps to know it was a classic raptor ruse to feign disinterest, and the sea eagle would swoop in once more.
In the final aerial exchange the eagle charged up and under the stork’s right wing. But the stork applied full reverse thrust, the eagle over-shot and the stork mounted a bold but optimistic retaliatory strike with its huge bill before plunging once more into the mangroves. This time it remained hidden until the sea eagle departed for good.
I would be very interested to know if there are any readers who have seen this kind of behaviour between these two species before.
FOOTNOTE: Since posting this, birding friend Graham Snell has recalled seeing an immature sea eagle (foolishly) attack a pair of black-necked storks with a juvenile at Kurrimine Beach (south of Innisfail). “It was years ago but I recall the adult BNS’s having it all over the eagle, which didn’t hang around.”