It only lasted for a savage, fleeting instant, but for 8 intense seconds last week an eagle, a fox, and a rabbit flew across the sky as one.
In an incredibly rare scene, photographers have captured the moment a bald eagle swooped down upon a young red fox clutching a rabbit, and in its whirlwind attempt to steal the fox's prey, the whole trio becomes airborne.
The surreal episode is a dramatic example of kleptoparasitism – where an animal steals food or prey from another – and the phenomenon probably doesn't get much more extraordinary than this fierce display witnessed at the San Juan Island National Historical Park in Washington State last week.
Nature photographer Kevin Ebi of Living Wilderness witnessed this "especially dramatic act of thievery" as he spent a day observing young foxes rest, play, and hunt on the park's grasslands.
As he watched, Ebi saw a young red fox catch a rabbit and start carrying it across the meadow, before the scene was violently interrupted from above.
"Behind me, I heard the cry of a bald eagle," Ebi writes on his blog. "I turned around and saw it approaching fast. I knew it wanted the rabbit."
As Ebi explains, the resulting swoop was even more dramatic than he expected, because the fox didn't back down from this aerial threat and simply surrender its rabbit dinner.
"Instead, the fox, with its jaw still clenched on the rabbit, inadvertently got snagged by the bald eagle," Ebi explains.
"The eagle lifted the young fox and rabbit into the sky triggering an even more dramatic struggle."
For a vivid, disbelief-suspending 8 seconds – captured on video by another photographer present, Zachary Hartje – the fox and eagle frantically tussle over the rabbit as the trio cartwheels across the sky.
"The kit (young fox) put up quite a fight, swinging back and forth," Ebi says.
"The eagle transferred the rabbit to its right talon and eventually let the fox go. The fox fell from enough height to trigger a small dust cloud when it hit the ground."
According to Ebi, the fox shook off its aerial encounter and was fine – despite plummeting an estimated 3 metres (10 ft), although the flight's peak reached twice as high – and later resumed playing with its fellow kits in the prairie.
"I was shocked and amazed," Hartje told ABC. "I have never seen this happen before, and no one else who I talked to there or on the island has ever seen it happen before."
Ebi, who has professionally observed eagles for years and even written a book about them, also says the episode is unique in his experience.
"I just couldn't believe what I was lucky enough to witness," he told Seattle PI.
"This is by far the most incredible bald eagle hunting encounter I've ever seen."