Eagles: Cartwheels Gone Awry

Haines, AK
Two bald eagles sit on a boulder at the Chilkoot River, Haines, Alaska.

Bald Eagles: Cartwheels – Why?

When two bald eagles fancy one another, courtship is dramatic. They’ll soar high in the sky, lock talons, and spin as they hurtle toward Earth. This dance is often called cartwheeling, a euphemistic term for a dance also known as the death spiral.


This courtship display, according to wildlife ecologist David Buehler of the University of Tennessee, is about “determining the fitness of your mate” as well as sparking attraction. There are risks, he says. “The stunt could, for instance, end in a fatal crash. It’s an interesting tension between succeeding with a mate and maintaining your own survival.”

Alaskan bald eagles cartwheel through the air.

When Cartwheels become Dartwheels

I watched in awe as this pair of bald eagles cartwheeled through Haines, AK airspace near the ship dock. They spun and plummeted in spectacular form, releasing just as one hit the water.  

The still airborne mate continued his approach, dragging a wing through the water and downing himself. Thankfully, eagles know how to swim. As long as their down feathers don’t get too wet, they will not drown.

Bald eagles cartwheel into the water.
A bald eagles makes a pass at its mate in the water
Two bald eagles swim after cartwheeling into the water.

Adding a Third Wheel

Then an interloper came to call, buzzing our pair as they collected their wits. The two males then began competing for the same female.


After several passes, the third bird finally flew off, leaving our bewildered pair to right themselves, take a few breast strokes and fly first through and then out o the water.

Two bald eagles compete for a female in the Lynn Canal.
Three bald eagles ensconced in a mating ritual.
A bald eagle flaps it's way out of the water.
A bald eagle escapes the ocean waters.

Wet and Not Amused

Our female was not impressed by the events that drove her into the drink. She made her way back to the ship dock to dry herself off, griping loudly all the way.


As water ran off her flight feathers and down her pipe of a perch, she gave a bit of a wet-dog shake and held her wings out to the wind. Eventually she did dry off and flew back toward Haines for a courtship respite.

Bald eagle lands on the ship dock in Haines, AK.
A wet bald eagle lands on the ship dock in Haines, AK.
A wet bald eagle lands on the ship dock in Haines, AK.
A wet bald eagle lands on the ship dock in Haines, AK.
Bald eagle takes flight from the ship dock in Haines, Alaska.
Bald eagle takes flight from the ship dock in Haines, Alaska.
Bald eagle voices her annoyance in Haines, Alaska..
Bald eagle dried her wet wings on the ship dock in Haines, Alaska.
Bald eagle flies through Haines, Alaska.

What do you think? I’d love to know!


  1. Troymidwfe

    Fabulous. So glad you are getting to opportunity to entertain and educate us Outsiders!

    • Kim Clune

      Haappy to share, but I’m still the outsider here, although I’ve done a few things that make me less os than some – like eating a hooligan fish. In Tlingit language the word for outsider is cheechako. I’m kind of glad to know somebody is more of a cheechako than I am!

      • Tom mortillaro

        U need to get a video camera that would have looke great on video

  2. Ryan K Biddulph

    Kim these shots are unreal. I marvel at the talons of these majestic birds. My sister saw one in her yard in New Jersey a few years ago; a handful of nesting pairs live in our home state. Talk about raw power!

    • Kim Clune

      Thank you — and agreed, Ryan! I’m in awe every time I see these incredible birds, and I see them multiple times daily here in Haines. It never gets old!

      What keeps happening, though, is that I think I see things that all the locals have seen at some point. Then I get messages like this one from Haines birder James Michael Studley:

      Outstanding story and photos. I have never seen this particularly (water launch), only the swim for shore and fly off from the rocks or beach… A swimming eagle is a real treat, watching one take off from the water is special.

  3. Molly Sturdevant

    Wowwwww, Kim, I’m awed by your fabulous eagle shots!

    • Kim Clune

      Thank you, Molly! This was quite an unexpected treat!

  4. Melissa Aronson

    Amazing photography Kim. If you are interested, you could contact the Arts Confluence and get your series of photos displayed at Howser’s grocery store on their screen. Haines is fortunate to have you here!

    Melissa Aronson

    • Kim Clune

      Thanks for the suggestion, Melissa, and for the very kind words!!

  5. Bill Conway

    Great post Kim, I really enjoyed the images and reading your post.

  6. Leslie Ferrari

    Wonderful shots! The one of her landing on the pipe is a phenomenal capture. The next to last shot, of her huddled on the pipe, her expression is priceless, “stupid men!”

    • Kim Clune

      Thank you, Leslie. It’s amazing how expressive these birds can be — with head tilts, body language, and just the energy that they exude!