The Land Down Under continues to supply us with a steady stream of amazing wildlife encounters – like this perfectly timed photograph of a little penguin on a one-way flight to the banquet table of a white-bellied sea eagle.   

The amazing snapshot was taken by photographer and bushwalker John Prats in the Royal National Park, which lies just south of Sydney. The lucky sighting actually took place back in April 2015, but the viral image is getting its second wind this week. 

Prats suspects the eagle snatched up its meal from a penguin colony located farther along the New South Wales coastline, within the protected Five Islands Nature Reserve. 

When the bird initially came into view, he recalls, it was impossible to distinguish exactly what was clutched in its claws. 

"At first we thought it was a large fish – perhaps salmon," Prats told the Illawarra Mercury. "I started shooting as soon as [the eagle] got reasonably close and it was only after I looked at the camera screen that I realised it was a penguin."

While he acknowledges that some may find the image hard to look at, Prats points out that it's an ordinary part of the natural world. White-bellied sea eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster) are opportunistic aerial hunters that swoop in on a variety of marine prey – and little penguins (Eudyptula minor) are not an unusual food choice. 

And when it comes to threats, it's the unnatural ones that loom largest for the local penguin population. The Sydney branch of the National Parks Association points out that an invasive grass has been a major problem for seabird habitat. 

"The destruction of nesting habitat for little penguins at Five Islands Nature Reserve from a garden-variety introduced grass may indeed be a bigger threat to this population than sea eagles," the team notes on Facebook.

The grass, known as kikuyu, has spread across these important penguin breeding grounds, and poses a strangling risk to baby birds. It can also block access to nesting burrows for penguin parents. 

For his part, Prats has been happy to see his image shared so widely online, and he hopes it will encourage people to get outdoors.  

"I only hope that at least, even in a small way, it has helped bring awareness of our natural environment and the need to protect it," he says.


Top header image: David Jenkins/Flickr