By Sean Quinton
This is a tale of a rabbit, a fox and an eagle — but it’s no bedtime story.
An incredible display of nature unfolded Saturday on San Juan Island as a young fox quickly learned a valuable lesson about the pecking order in the Northwest wilderness.
A fox kit pranced along the prairie of San Juan Island National Historical Park with a rabbit clenched in its jaws, apparently pleased with its catch. Then the predator pauses abruptly, looks up and sees a bald eagle coming its way. The predator becomes the prey.
The fox tumbles and spins, and the eagle swoops to take hold of the rabbit. Both the rabbit and the fox are lifted into the air. The eagle flaps its wings. The fox doesn’t give up right away, flailing its young legs.
But the bird is too much for the red fox, which lets go of the rabbit and falls twirling back to the ground. The bird of prey won the battle.
The eight-second spectacle was captured on video.
Zachary Hartje was shooting photos when he anticipated what was about to happen in the prairie. He switched his camera to video mode.
“I was totally shocked,” he said. “No one I had ever talked to had ever seen anything like that.”
Hartje recently graduated from Gonzaga University and goes to the San Juan Islands several times a year to film and photograph the foxes there.
“It was a baby fox, so it might’ve been its first kill,” he said. “The fox just ran away into the den after. It looked pretty scared.”
Another photographer, Kevin Ebi, was also there to watch the fox kits.
“When I heard the bald eagle calling, I knew exactly what was going to happen,” Ebi said, who posted his photos to his blog, LivingWilderness.com. “I knew it wanted that rabbit.”
“After I saw the eagle finally drop the fox … I thought, ‘This is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.’ “
Ebi said he has photographed eagles for years. He even published a book called “Year of the Eagle,” which chronicles the life of the Pacific Northwest birds. Even for him, the event was unprecedented.
Ebi said eagles don’t like to expend more calories than they need to get food, so when they see some other animal that’s already done the work of hunting, they might try to swoop in to steal a meal. The behavior is called kleptoparasitism.
Saturday’s confrontation was on another level. “This is the most difficult attempt I’ve ever seen and it’s extremely uncommon,” Ebi said.
The fox appeared to escape without injury, but next time it might think twice before taking its prey across the prairie.