Pale Male, the famed red-tailed hawk of New York City's Central Park, was perched on the 22nd floor of the swank Beresford apartment building on Wednesday when the national emblem of the United States soared past, carrying a large fish in its talons.
"Pale Male usually sits there sort of relaxed, but he sat up straight when he saw the bald eagle," said Lincoln Karim, the man who made Pale Male and his mate Lola famous with his extensive photographic record of the romantic raptors raising fledglings in their high-rise aerie on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.
Karim, doing his usual morning routine of photographing Pale Male, had the hawk in his viewfinder when the bird suddenly went to attention.
"I looked up when Pale Male did and saw the eagle," Karim said. "They fly over in migration season, but very high. I have never seen one that close."
At that, the white-headed bird was distant enough that Karim, an Associated Press Television News technician, needed his 800mm lens to freeze it in flight, and all but one of his photos were slightly blurred by movement.
The photo showed the eagle as it appears on the national escutcheon — wings spread, head cocked in vigilance — but with what looked like a striped bass in its talons, instead of the flowing ribbon reading, "E Pluribus Unum."
Bald eagles, once highly endangered and always strictly protected by federal law, have prospered in the New York region in recent years.
As fish-eaters, they live in the Hudson River highlands, and several have been reintroduced under a city program to the Inwood section of upper Manhattan.
They can be seen in winter, riding ice floes down the river and fishing along the way, said Cal Von Burger, a freelance photographer and author of a book, "The Birds of Central Park."
Von Burger said he has spotted eagles over the park numerous times in migrating seasons but none has chosen to live there.
Yigal Gelb, executive director of New York City Audubon, which protects wild birds and their habitats, said eagles were rare in the park.
"Seeing one," he said, "is a pretty big deal."