May I present this week’s sea eagle?
As yet on my estuarine adventures, I haven’t seen a score of sea-eagles on a single morning (although I can imagine a battalion of them, flying in formation), but an encounter with an eagle has become as much a regular feature of my kayaking expeditions as the ubiquitous white-faced heron. Those cryptic little passerines in the riverside scrub are hard to spot even if you’re not short sighted and half deaf. So three cheers for the white-bellied sea eagle “large and conspicuous” “easily sighted when… soaring… in search of prey“. Haliaeetus leucogaster, you are the middle aged canoeist’s friend.
There was the eagle we saw battling it out with a pair of whistling kites over fishing rights on a fabulous family excursion across the Hawkesbury from Brooklyn, across the surf-line and up the Patonga River. According to Wikipedia, sea eagles harass smaller raptors like kites in hopes of stealing their prey. Not today, Josephine. This eagle was bested by the lowly kite, unwilling to relinquish a top notch fishing spot. I need to listen to my own advice to my students – don’t believe Wikipedia!
An eagle even made a guest appearance on a modest little paddle down the end of our street. This was one mellow raptor, its apparent indifference to poorly coordinated amateur photographers splashing around trying to get a good shot belying its rep as a “shy and easily disturbed species“. Ruth, my companion on the water that day, had seen a sea eagle, earlier, on the very same bare branch, while bushwalking along the ridge above. Same bird or just a popular perch?
Since the rule for my stolen Saturday morning paddles is no more than half an hour in the car, I’ve frequently had this very thought as I spot yet another sea eagle. Same bird? Am I being stalked by just one glorious if persistent raptor who’s somehow taken a fancy to my little craft, charmed perhaps by its avian-friendly name? Or is the Hawkesbury awash with sea eagles?
Even the Department of Environment in its definitive run down on Haliaeetus leucogaster doesn’t seem super sure. Their guesstimate of 500 pairs across the whole country is based on a one for every 40 kilometre of Australian coastline would pretty much mean that all the eagles in my photos are the same dude (or dudette – the females are larger but I find it’s kind of hard to tell if a bird is small or if it’s just far away).
Either way, I’m 100% sure this week’s eagle is a new one, since I saw it at the start of a paddle down Wallarah Creek, seventy ks north of here. The creek wends its quiet way through bushland past the Wyong North sewage treatment plant to Budgewoi Lake. What with my burgeoning interest in taking blurry pictures of distant bird-life, it seems I will be spending more and more time hanging around sewage farms – they seem to be the go-to venue for the would-be twitcher.
The Budgewoi eagles seem a bit more coy than the Berowra locals, as you can tell from this dodgy pic on my maxed out zoom. Or maybe it’s just that this sea-eagle didn’t want to share her supersized snack.
Which, after observing the consequences of fraternisation with humans for other birds I saw on my way up Wallarah Creek, is probably a good thing.
Up until recently, it was thought that carelessly discarded bait, hooks and line were the big killers of waterbirds, and there have been some efforts made to make sure fisherfolk dispose of their scraps in the rubbish rather than leaving them lying around – not such a big ask really. Some have even argued for the use of biodegradable line and hooks that will rust away (eventually).
But efforts to get fishermen to clean up their act have had surprisingly little impact on the number of waterbirds being injured or killed by fishing tackle. In fact, research by academics and wildlife rescue organisations in South Australia and New South Wales suggest that the vast majority of birds that get entangled or hooked – often pelicans, but also plovers, gulls and stilts – get caught up when they are close to people actually fishing.
After my trip up Wallarah Creek I can see why. As I passed riverfront houses with their landing slips and jetties I saw pelicans lounging on back lawns and an excited egret being thrown small fry by a local. Even the striated heron, normally shy, flew off in the direction of human habitation, not the other way. The birds around here are familiar with humans, their tinnies, their by-catch and, unfortunately, their fishing lines.