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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

How many times have you sat in front of the television, watching a wildlife documentary and thought to yourself, “I’d love to see that in person”?

Thursday, the tables were turned. I saw wildlife drama unfold that had me thinking, “Man, this belongs on TV.”

I traveled to Mermet Lake with a pair of friends on a birding/photography expedition.

It was evident from the start it would be a good day. We saw blue-winged teal, coots and several pied-billed grebes before reaching the lake proper.

When we spotted a dozen or so white pelicans, a sighting that would normally pass as a highlight at Mermet, we pulled onto one of the pullouts on the north side of the lake. While studying the pelicans, I noticed a bird perched atop a dead tree several hundred yards away.

The distance was such that we couldn’t positively identify it, but the consensus was a juvenile bald eagle.

Moments later, our suspicions were verified.

The eagle left its perch and was hovering, much like a kestrel, over a point of reeds protruding into the lake. A group of 25-30 terrified coots (one can only assume they were experiencing terror) surrounded the point.

As the eagle hovered, the coots scrambled for safety. Several immediately forced their way into the reeds, taking cover under the vegetation. One or two others made an ill-advised sprint across open water. The eagle dipped to the surface in an effort to pluck them off the water, but came up empty.

Those missed allowed the coots to backtrack and seek safety in the huddle.

The missed opportunities did little to deter the eagle’s resolve. He swooped back over the point, hovering on the wind as the coots frantically scrambled for their lives.

The same scenario played out at least twice more.

Panicked coots made a run for safety, prompting a dive-bomb attack from the eagle. However, the eagle came up empty-handed each time.

Each time the eagle dove for an individual coot, several more clawed their way into the vegetation.

After the final dive, the eagle returned to the point to find that all the coots had scrambled to safety.

But, this eagle wasn’t one to just throw in the towel. He circled the point once more and found several coots tucked into a pocket of open water with the vegetation. The eagle swooped once more. The massive wingspan hid the coots from view, but below the wings we could see the frantic action of the coots’ feet beating the water to a froth.

If you are a fan of coots, this story has a happy ending. None of them ended up as Easter dinner for the eagle.

In the meantime, after the final coot was safely tucked into the reeds, the eagle soared to a nearby cypress tree and stared toward the point which was probably quivering with fearful coots. After a few minutes, the eagle had enough and flew off into the distance.

It was a fascinating slice of nature I’d never witnessed before. It would have made for riveting television.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 5618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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