Keep reading, this is not a children’s story, despite the title!
I knew this project would be difficult from the beginning as war movies dealing with eagles show a lot of hard work and heavy casualties!
In earlier visits to Hippo Pools Wilderness camp ( and even earlier ones) I learnt that the camp offers a number of attractions for those feeling like trekking. Among these are old ruins, San paintings, several viewpoints a large baobab and various eagle nests. I was aware that both Verreaux’s and Crowned eagles had nested nearby for many years but I had not seen them before.
Aware of this possibility on arrival I enquired about the eagles’ and I was informed that there was also one of an African Hawk Eagle that had a fledgling. I expressed my interest on a walk to the site but later on I was informed -to my regret- that the bird was no longer where it had been seen before. However, before I could feel too bad, I was told that an egg had been spotted at the Crown’s eagle nest and that we could go there instead! I immediately booked a walk for the following morning.
We left about 07:00 hours and walked for about one and one half hours over rather broken terrain and mainly uphill. After going for about an hour we spotted one of the eagles perched a long way away. However, we were advised that the nest was not in that direction but up the hill! It was clearly one of the pair, probably the male eagle scouting for food as these eagles are special in that the male often feeds the female while she incubates.
It should be noted that these eagles are not common and rather secretive and as Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa puts it, “Normally chooses the tallest canopy tree in which to build its large stick platform nest”. Luckily I did not know this while our trek was in progress as I was having additional difficulties with my recently acquired hiking shoes that were destroying my toes!
After another thirty minutes of steep uphill walk, we got to the general area where the nest was. Although I could not yet see it, my companions did and they got excited about what they saw. Eventually I spotted the nest as well as the second eagle perched about one metre above it.
Getting close to the nest meant that our up hill walk changed into a steep climb until we managed to get to a large rock above the nest. From this really great vantage point we could appreciate the situation and observe. We sat down and remained quiet while my toes throbbed, also quietly…
The nest was large, much larger than I had anticipated! Clearly it had been there for a number of years and its occupants had made a good job at building it. It must have been about two metres across and at least one and one half metres deep! This was a large nest for the species as Roberts VII Multimedia mentions an average diametre of 1.5-1.8 m with a height of up to 70 cm but old nests -such as this one- can reach up to two to three metres in diametre and three metres in height as the eagles add new material every year.
By the time we reached the “watching rock” the eagle was no longer there and we (or rather my companions) could see the egg that, on further observation, turned out to be two! While watching the nest the eagle came back and, after turning the eggs with its beak, literally “sunk” over them and stayed there unmoved by our presence for the rest of the time. Crown eagles are large birds reaching a height of up to 99 cm (tail included) being the fifth longest eagle that exists weighing about 4 kg with a wingspan of 1.50 to 1.80 m, comparatively short for the bird’s bulk. Mainly the female incubates for about 50 days and two eggs laid but normally only one chick goes through as siblicide is the norm. Only after 9-11 weeks the new bird is fully feathered and able to leave nest for nearby branches at 110-115 days. Despite its large size, the bird was truly dwarfed by its nest!
Over 95 per cent of this eagle’s prey are mammals and they have a reputation for being great fliers and being able to take off vertically inside the forest. I was wrong in thinking that they fed mainly on monkeys, as these mammals are only 7 per cent of its diet. Their usual prey are hyraxes and small/young antelope (65 per cent).
We returned to camp from the eagle’s nest via the baobab tree. I have already spent time on these fantastic trees in a recent post on Chitake so I will not waste too many words. This particular baobab has two main visible features: spikes driven up its trunk and a hole that allows you to see the inside and even enter the tree if you are interested and adventurous. Probably the spikes are there to enable people to collect either tree produce or honey but we could not tell.
As we did not carry torches while looking for eagle nests during the day, there was not enough light to undertake a proper examination of the tree’s interior. We saw that there were some sun rays that filtered through small gaps on the roof, where the branches had sprouted, indicating that the top of the tree is not sealed tightly (as I thought) but there are gaps in its cortex. The holes were small and the light was not enough for us to see inside so we appealed to the trick of using the camera flash to look inside.
We saw that there were also spikes inside the tree! Although we did not detect any animal presence or smell (particularly the pungent bat smell!) inside the trunk, we took some pictures and, later examination of these, we noticed a small dark spot on its pale brown interior. It was a bat caught in flight! Further observation and enlargement of the pictures revealed other bats hanging from the roof, not in bunches but keeping distance from one another.
By the time we finished our observations of the baobab it was lunchtime and hot so we took walked back to camp, my toes still complaining in silence!
Hippo Pools Camp, Zimbabwe, 8 October 2015.