Friday, 24 May 2013

Dead or Alive?

As I dropped over the ridge this morning and went into the next valley I witnessed another extensively burnt area. There was an eerie silence. I stopped to listen; there was no wind and even if there had been there were no bushes left to rustle in it. I couldn’t hear the river, which would have been running deep in the valley below, and I couldn’t hear any birds. It felt for a moment like the entire place was dead. 
From where I was standing I knew I should be able to see the eagle’s nest, although I still had a while to hike to get to a better viewpoint. With a feeling of trepidation I raised my binoculars to check if it had made it through the fire – and to my relief it had. So I hiked on. As I rounded the next bend I came across what seemed to be a mini oasis amongst the blackened landscape. Such a small area, but with plenty of water, had burst into life. It looked slightly out of place considering the surroundings, but it was certainly something very special.
And the eagles? Well, when I arrived and set up the telescope, one was perched above the nest and the other was flying infront of it. They both then flew off and collected sticks which were then arranged onto the evergrowing nest structure. I watched them do this for about half an hour. Then they flew off to another perch where they mated and then the female returned to the nest and continued arranging it. While I was sat there I could hear a troupe of baboons further up the valley and a few dassies alarm calling. So I guess the answer is very much alive!
Look carefully - you can see the eagles on the nest
After this great start to the morning I went on to check the neighbouring territory. I waited a while to find the eagles but eventually a noisy crow alerted me to one Black Eagle flying high against the cliffs. The eagle kept stooping and dropping its legs. It was evidently mobbing something. I was still very far away so it took me a while to see what was happening. The eagle flew away and shortly after this I noticed it – a leopard sitting on a ledge. After a few minutes the leopard started to walk in a relaxed way, casually lifting its paws and jumping up large boulders. The eagle wasn’t impressed and brought reinforcements. Together the two eagles took turns in stooping towards the leopard but never making contact. The leopard seemed oblivious to their attempts and continued on its way. It walked behind a rock and I never saw it again but the eagles continued to keep watch over that area for the next hour which I spent watching them.

I feel very much alive too!!

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Fire loss

This is my favorite place in the Cederberg, in fact it’s one of my favorite places in the world. The cliffs are endless and overwhelming. From here you can see some of the highest peaks of the Cederberg and what I imagine to be some of the deepest valleys.
A photo from my first visit in 2011
For me it has always been a treat to come and see the Black Eagles which nest here. It’s the longest and steepest hike I regularly undertake to monitor any pair, but there is no doubt that it is worth it. Today was my first visit here this year, I managed the hike in a record time, pushed on by my excitement to see if the eagles are incubating. As I approached the clouds were pushing into the valley so I raced on to get there before the view of the nest was blocked… but something was wrong.. I couldn’t see the obvious white wash that normally points out this nest. I quickly assembled the telescope and trained it onto the nest… but there was nothing. Two fires had raged through this area since my last visit, one in December 2012 and another in February 2013, and both of the eagle nests had been burnt down.
The nests on the left, today on the right...
Soon after I arrived the clouds engulfed the valley and knowing that it would be impossible to see the eagles in these conditions I left again. Fire is of course a natural and necessary phenomenon in this fynbos environment, but nonetheless, I hiked back feeling quite deflated…
Clouds fill the valley

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Eagle tagging

The 2013 Black Eagle research season has taken off again with the deployment of two new GPS loggers. The very first Black Eagle was GPS tagged for this project a year ago in April 2012 (read more). Later in 2012 we tagged a further two eagles. One of these tags fell off, while the other has become a record holder having collected nearly half-a-million GPS fixes!
The latest two eagles were both tagged in April in the Sandveld region. They were both females and consequently far bigger than the males we have previously tagged. They both weighed in around a kilogram heavier and had the longest hallux claws I have ever measured at an impressive 5.6cm!
Measuring up
Their remarkable talons have the potential to do some serious damage
It is always a great privilege to observe these eagles and having the opportunity to see them so close is an additional honor. We make the process as quick as possible and release them again at the same site.
Release of the first female, with GPS tag visible. 

Release of the second female.
After the captures I checked on these eagles everyday for a week. The final evening before I left the area, I had my last sighting of the second eagle we tagged. When she arrived, flying in from behind the cliffs she was carrying prey. Both she and her mate had massive crops and after circling a few times she landed on a nest (which was last used in 2011) with the prey. This was the first time this year I have seen this pair land on any of their nests. Another week later I returned again and watched the first female taking sticks from one nest and moving them to another. It's exciting time times now with the imminent arrival of the breeding season. The addition of these tagged eagles will provide invaluable data for my research and I looking forwards to tracking their movements over the next year.