The etymology of “predator” is interesting, as is the frequency of its use in the modern lexicon. Its use has mushroomed since the late 20th century ( 1970 on ) due to its social application to human behaviour including such things as the predatory practices of corporations and the most heinous crimes of sexual “predators”. It was a term that was adapted by biologists only in the 1920s and 1930s to describe an animal that kills and eats other animals. That includes Buffleheads which are ferocious predators of Green Tanaids, and then there is the iconic Bald Eagle, more a scavenger than a predator. In its original Latin meaning it was a term to describe humans, particularly from the 15th century when praedat meant “seized as plunder”, or the noun praedator – plunder. This has serious negative connotations for the “natural predators” and this may have been intended back in a time when biologists employed the term to justify their war on predators. That’s how I earned 5 cents for every crow egg or gopher tail I collected for Ducks UnLimited in the early 1960s on the prairies.
Nobody would generally think of a Bufflehead as a predator, but it is, and in turn, it is “predated” by three predators in its salt water habitat. These include the marine subspecies of the River Otter, the Peregrine Falcon and the Bald Eagle. Of these, the Bufflehead most fears the Otter and the Falcon, and it has developed particular anti-predation tactics such as the “star-burst” formation for Otters and the crash-dive tactic for Peregrines. In general Buffleheads show indifferent attitudes to the resident pair of the Beaufort Eagles, knowing that they are not really serious threats, but every once in a while, especially in December, they become highly vigilant and take evasive action when the eagles fly over the bay. They know what intent is and that the local eagles are hungry, though they reserve their highest level of alertness when juvenile eagles ( perhaps offspring ) pass through.
Though incidents of predation are uncommon, I’ve been fortunate to observe many over the years, and all are exciting to witness. Early this afternoon while showing my son Gavin the output from my Bufflehead charts, we were interupted by a fine example of predation between the Beaufort Eagle and a Drake Bufflehead. This was a poor match and the outcome was predictable because Drakes rarely fall prey. In this case, as always, the Eagle hazed the flock leaving only the drake over the relatively shallow water over the tidal flats, and though it attempted to hover and dive in order to tire the drake, it finally gave up and the drake surfaced and flew hard to join the flock on the other side of the bay. This is when the eagle’s most impressive potential as a predator took over and it zoomed low and powerfully across the entire bay into the center of the flock, hoping to surprise a weak or young bird. It didn’t work but the display impressed my son.
So as I resumed with the Bufflehead chart display, I was again disrupted as he blurted something about another act of predation taking place directly under the bay window. I was amazed to see a Coopers Hawk lying on the surface, its wings flayed out, and an indistinct form underwater beneath it. Its prey reamined held underwater even as I had time to grab the camera but it was frightened by my movement and released its prey which I was surprised to see was the resident female Kingfisher. She took off and moved rapidly across the bay. Had I been successful in capturing the moment, it would have made a remarkable picture, a remarkable event that no one has probably ever witnessed.
K. J. Finley December 18, 2018
Eagle spots lone Bufflehead drake
Eagle homes in on drake.
Eagle heads for the main flock hoping to create a better opportunity.