Heron and Eagle having stand off

Stand your ground

The story of an eagle that tried to bully a great blue heron but came up empty-handed. 

Story + Photography by Sophia Schade 

Editor’s note: Local photographer Sophia Schade had a front-row seat for an epic showdown between an eagle and a great blue heron at Donnelley Wildlife Management Area in Green Pond, South Carolina. Here she shares details and photos of the once-in-a-lifetime encounter. Spoiler alert: The catfish got away.

People say serendipity can be a beautiful thing. A well-worn photographer’s adage is “f/8 and be there,” with an emphasis on “be there.” Here is a recent experience to illustrate a bit of truth in both. I was driving home from Charleston; I had been there for four days helping a friend move. I needed some me time. Just me, my camera and nature — my happy place. I called my husband, Dennis, and told him I would be a little late but promised I would get home in time for us to have dinner together. I was so excited and exhausted at the same time. 

As I turned off of U.S. 17 into Donnelley Wildlife Management Area, I immediately felt that everything was going to be OK. My life is great. My friend was starting a new life in Delaware, and she was going to be OK.

About 20 minutes after I entered the refuge, I got to my favorite spot: The pond with the tree. Most photographers that visit there know all about the tree. It is where all the action happens. It is a resting place for many different species. On this day there was only one anhinga in the tree. The white pelicans were swimming, and everyone was having a lazy late afternoon. Some of the waterfowl and shorebirds were fishing, and some were getting ready to roost. I relaxed and enjoyed the scene before me, taking random pictures.

Too quickly my alarm rang, and I knew it was time to head home.

Eagle flying in the sky
I started to drive off when I saw an eagle flying overhead looking for food. He had eaglets in the nest and wanted to get them a late-afternoon snack.
heron trying to eat a big catfish
The next thing I noticed was a great blue heron flying over the levy, landing not far away. Within seconds, he speared a large catfish. I put my car into park and grabbed my camera. “This will be fun to watch the heron try to eat this big catfish,” I thought.
Eagle and Heron having a stand off
With my camera focused on the heron and catfish, the next thing I see is the eagle coming out of nowhere like a bullet, causing the heron to drop the fish. Now the heron is mad and puts up his wings. The eagle doesn’t care. He wants the fish.
Eagle and Heron having a stand off
The eagle is now getting closer, and he tells the heron, “I am going to get your fish.” The heron opens its mouth and says “Oh, no, you will not.”
Eagle and Heron with wings up having a stand off
The heron opens his wings and jumps up in the air. He is now over the eagle, saying, “Get away from me! This is my fish.” The eagle is frantically looking for the fish. He must find food for the eaglets.
Eagle and Heron wings up getting into it
The eagle starts talking, telling the heron, “You might be taller than me, but I am stronger. Have you seen my talons? I need that fish. I have eaglets to feed.”
The eagle is getting angry. He is jumping up and down and feeling around the mud. “Where is that big fish? What did you do with it? I am telling you, I need it.”
The heron replies, “I am telling you, get away from here. Go find your own fish. Go away! There are other fish in this big pond, so go find your own.” The eagle acquiesces with “OK, OK, you win. I am not happy, but I guess I am out of here. I would have preferred to steal your fish instead of finding my own.”
The heron looks at the eagle as he flies away, and thinks. “What just happened? I won the fight with the eagle but lost my dinner!” And the catfish got away. It was his lucky day.

I could not believe what I just witnessed. My heart was beating so fast that I needed few minutes to just breathe. Quickly, I grabbed my camera and started looking at my photos and started praying, “please God, let them be good!” I took about 30 photos. Not all good, but enough to make me really happy. And then the tears started streaming down my face. God knew I needed that moment. After I got home, I realized there was a lesson in what I had witnessed. In life some people might be bullies and come after you, but stand your ground. If you do, eventually, they will go away. It’s a lesson well worth missing dinner for.

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