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Mid-air rescue: rare Little Eagle hunting a Rose-breasted Cockatoo foiled by a flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos

“If you listen to birds, every day will have a song in it.”
–Kyo Maclear-

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It was a clear Sunday afternoon in late autumn in Canberra, and the sun’s light was pouring in sideways from low in the West behind my apartment building.  In the blue skies to the East a flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos whirled and spun in the bright light, their feathers glowing transcendentally white against the azure sky.

As I photographed the awe-inspiring sight, I noticed their pattern was choppy and abrupt.  They bore a marked resemblance to a school of fish in water, darting together in coordinated movements.  I studied these bright white creatures more carefully with the aid of the magnification  of my modest zoom lens. The flock also contained several darker coloured birds: Rose-breasted Cockatoos, or as we fondly know them, Galahs.  Amongst them was a larger bird soaring effortlessly through the flock on its wide wings.

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In just a minute [1], the Galahs in the mixed flock were almost gone, and soon there were only two interlopers left in the flock. As I watched, I realised that I was watching an intricate flight-dance in which the larger dark bird sought the smaller bird, but never caught up with it.  The Galah was being hunted!

But the white Cockatoos almost always seemed to be between the hunter and its prey.

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After many attempts to capture the smaller bird, at some point it seems the probability of success became vanishingly small for the bird of prey. Ultimately it flew away, claws empty.

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The Galah was safe to fly another day:

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And as for the Cockatoo flock, their movements relaxed into a loosely swooping spread of birds across the sky.

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Slowly the brilliant late afternoon light faded.  I wondered as I watched the cockatoos so obviously enjoying the sky, the sun and each other, why would they help a fellow bird not of their species?  If you look at the photo  from early on in the event it is apparent they did not want to hang around a predator:

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Even if, as large birds, the Cockatoos were unlikely to be prey, they were clearly giving it a wide berth. They could have flown away, but they didn’t. Was it some form of avian solidarity?  Is there a symbiotic or even friendly relationship between the two related species? Or was it more prosaic, that the Galah itself kept flying into the middle of the Cockatoo flock for safety in numbers?  Whatever the reason, it was a special moment to be able to observe and photograph.

Little Eagle

And the larger bird? What was that? A later online search of predatory birds in Canberra revealed that the hunting bird was a Little Eagle [2], a very rare diminutive eagle in Canberra whose staple diet is middle-sized birds (of which Galahs are a prime example) and rabbits.  It can easily be identified by its markings seen from below.

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Hunting bird – markings identify it as a rare Little Eagle

 

 

Footnotes
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[1] I took a total of 57 photos between 2:58 pm and 3:02 pm.  The first photograph showed the flock of birds contained about 9-10 Galahs, several dozen Cockatoos and one Magpie. The Galahs and Magpie present at 2:58 pm were gone (other than the singled out Galah) by 2:59 pm.
[2] According to one source, there are only 4 breeding pairs in Canberra at present.  ABC, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-20/little-eagles-big-journey-from-canberra-to-daly-waters/8459040

References
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All photographs by Sabrina Caldwell, and were cropped for easier viewing online and resized for web use; no other changes have been made.
See also http://carnivoraforum.com/topic/9387068/2/ for a detailed photo of a Little Eagle.

 

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