Wednesday sighting: Bald Eagle below the dam

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

Before the kill, the eagle sat in the tree for a long time.

It had flown in low from the south over the bridge to South Hadley Falls and settled on a dead branch in a leafless tree on a rocky island in the middle of the river. Beyond the island the dam was dry, save for a torrent spilling over a small section near the Holyoke Gas & Electric plant. The old Texon factory slept at the opposite shore.

A gang of gulls flew in front of the eagle, white spots against the factory’s red brick. It was 5 p.m. and the eagle sat on the branch for almost a full half hour. I stood on the bridge and watched the bird watch the river.

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

I only looked away for a few seconds but that’s when the eagle made its move. I’d pulled the lens back for a wide shot of the river and the dam and the factory and the mountain and most of all the clouds, which had turned the color of a shark’s skin. A halo of white sky opened up over Mount Tom. It was getting cold.

When my eyes returned to the branch, the eagle was gone.

I picked it up a few seconds later: it was flying well below the height of a dam, looking down at a duck that was nearly raking its wingtips across the water.

The eagle dove.

Click to enlarge. (c) Greg Saulmon 2011

With its first hit it knocked the duck sideways in the air. Then it made a pedaling motion with its feet, reaching for and finally clasping the duck in its talons. The eagle carried the duck over a tangle of boulders and tree trunks and splashed into the river for a moment as it hauled its prey onto a long, smooth rock.

Headlights flickered on passing cars, drivers unaware of the drama unfolding below. The windows of the Texon factory watched unblinking. Two men lit a campfire on the sandy shore just north of the bridge. One man sat on a log the river had polished bone-white. He looked out at the cold brown-green water.

Out below the dam, the eagle bowed its head and ate.

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