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Hanging with eagles and seagulls - in February in Iowa
by Dan Brawner Times Columnist · March 2nd, 2017

I don't care that they claim this is February. Our crocuses are coming up. When I open the front door to check for snow, I have to close it again quickly to keep the flies from coming in. If I have to mow the lawn next week, I'm going to be really annoyed.

But I figured I might as well take advantage of the situation and go kayaking on Lake Macbride with my friend Steve. When we arrived, we met a man who was just leaving and looked very pleased with himself for getting to try out the brand-new boat he bought himself for Christmas. You can just hear his wife: "Only an idiot buys a boat in December. The lake will be frozen solid until April!" The man told us cryptically that if we wanted a big surprise, just paddle around the next bend. He wouldn't tell us any more than that, but we figured, what could go wrong on a beautiful day like this?

I know what you're thinking. Yes, the air temperature might be 70 degrees, but the water is barely above freezing and if we fell in, we'd have maybe five minutes to make it to shore before curling up in an icy fetal position and sinking to the bottom. After a few shaky moments freeing our boats from the dock, we were skimming smoothly across the water like ducks.

When we rounded the next corner, we could see there was a thin crust of ice ahead of us, glinting in the sun, making a slight crackling sound as it undulated with the movement of the lake. Slightly above the surface was a layer of white. From a distance, we couldn't tell if that was snow or foam from the waves. But as we drew closer, we could see it was hundreds of seagulls. And maybe 75 bald eagles. The birds were sitting on the delicate layer of ice. Some were walking around. We saw one gull peck through the ice and pull up a small silver fish. None of them appeared particularly concerned by our presence. Along the shore, tall trees towered over us. They had no leaves, but dozens of eagles and one large hawk perched on their branches like feathered fruit.

From a distance, a bald eagle looks majestic. But from 30 feet overhead, it looks downright threatening. One of these guys has a wingspan of about five feet and can hit their prey like a guided missile. Judging from the dirty looks I was getting from the closest one, I figured it was thinking about knocking me into the water just for the fun of it.

Every so often, the seagulls would all take to the air, squawking like a badly damaged calliope. They circled and swooped, streaking across the sky against the bright sun. Then, as if by prearrangement, they began diving into the lake, churning the water white, before shooting back into the air, sometimes with a small sliver of a fish in their beaks. I marveled at how the birds could even see a fish beneath those dark waves, let alone catch one.

The eagles, too, were fishing, although they seemed more combative than the gulls. They would bank in the air and buffet each other as they battled for advantage. Once, I saw two large male eagles flying close together, one above the other, jockeying for position. Suddenly, the one above let loose with a huge poo, covering the other eagle that pitched sharply to one side, but too late to escape the worst of it. I'm just glad I didn't know what that eagle in the tree was really thinking.

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