I want to share the experience and feeling of a couple of extraordinary
days ‘working’ in the Cederberg.
At 7.45h in the morning I leave my car to visit a nest and
walk on to a hut where I have planned to spend the night. Around 9.00h I arrive
at the nest to do observations. Due to the sun rising above the nest cliff, I’m
forced to search for a new observation spot where the sun doesn’t blind me. After
approximately 6 hours of observing I take off in the direction of the hut. I
realize that it will be dark around 18.15h and I am not sure how long the walk
to the hut will be. From the observation spot I go off trail to take the
shortest route to the hut. This means that I have to go up pretty steep,
climbing rocks and struggling through bushes. From my map I can’t define what
the inclination is, my heart rate, on the other hand, does show a steady
increase. With a backpack of approximately 10 kg on my back I realize that the
climb is pretty tiring. Not every boulder I climb on it is clearly visible how
to get on, but that’s what hiking uphill off trail in the Cederberg is all
about. Halfway up the slope I want to pull myself up a rock. I place my hand
and pull to see if I it is steady enough. A disc of rock slides down and a big
black scorpion appears. It was hidden under the disc. I remember this species
from earlier hikes but this one is three times as big as the last one I saw. I
assume that it rather sees me taking another route. At 17:30h I arrive at the hut.
A stream close by is a fresh water supply. With the most beautiful sunset in
the background I have had so far, I warm up my food and settle in the hut. I go
to bed early realizing that tomorrow will be a long day full of hiking and two
nest visits scheduled.
I have a decent breakfast because I don’t like pausing
during hiking. At 8.30h I leave my sleeping place, off to the first nest.
Luckily a trail leads me to the first nest and on my way I find a new nest.
Even Megan has never seen this one. Unfortunately, I don’t see any signs of
activity on or around the nest. I move on to the nest that I was heading for.
At this spotI am lucky to spot the eagles
within 10 minutes. Unfortunately, not on the nest. After watching them for a
while I lose them. One of them was on the nest for a minute but didn’t seem to
incubate anything. It did not come back to the nest so I assume they are not
incubating. I head on to the next site. The first 15 minutes is back on the
same trail, the other hour and a half are in, for me, an unknown part of the
Cederberg. If I would follow the path to the nest it would take me more than a
day to reach the nest. The first part off trail has a nice inclination. It is
next to a small stream which supplies me with fresh water. At the source of the
stream it flattens out, but with huge boulders. I assume that not many people
have been up here. It is rough up here and there are ginormous boulders to
climb on. At 15.00h I arrive at my observation spot. Now I am facing the nest cliff
from a better angle (higher up). Unfortunately no breeding activity but two
black eagles flying around the nest cliff. Meaning that the territory is still
occupied. At 16:30h I finish my chocolate and my observations and leave the
I realize that I have one hour and 45 minutes before
it gets dark. Hopefully, I am back on track by then because I had not planned
to spend another night out. After walking for a while on a plain on top of a
mountain, I start feeling my backpack. I orientate on the mountains to see what
my options are to get back down. The sun sets at 17.45h and I realize I don’t
have much time before it gets dark. I think it will be tough to get back today.
I think by myself: “I will keep walking, I don’t want to spend another night
out.” I go up one side hoping that I can
get down on the other side. When I am on top it is dark. Luckily the rocks I
walk on are mostly white. When I arrive on the other side of the mountain at
18:45h it is dark and I can see 50 meters straight down. That was not what I
had hoped to see. In this darkness I have no clue how to get to the path now
and I don’t want to climb back up in the dark. I search for a sleeping spot
without being picky and take the first spot with a small overhang. Although it
is on hard rock and close the edge, it will be fine for one night. I hope I
don’t move in my sleep, however on this rock I will probably wake up when I
start moving. I send out a message that I am out for another night to the
people who may expect me back on Driehoek. On 19.15h I get in my sleeping bag
realizing that it will take twelve hours before the sun rises. That is long if
you are lying on rock as hard as concrete. I can’t find the good position,
which I probably won’t find. Although I am constantly curious how close I am to
sunrise during the night, I only check my phone twice for the time. Once at
1.30h in the morning, just halfway through the night, and the other time at
6.30 in the morning. In the morning light I can see how far down it goes. Far!
But I do see the path I was looking for. That is a good sign although this
route is no option without climbing equipment. At 7.30 I leave my sleeping
place and go on to another place where I, hopefully, can go down. Again I am unlucky.
I go back up and feel trapped on top. I check the map and find another spot to go
down to the path I am aiming for. My next option is suitable for going down. At
9.20h I reach the path which leads me back to my car. At 11.00h I am home sweet
home. I lost some energy but I gained some knowledge about myself, the eagles
and the Cederberg.
Wow. I get excited every time I see one. Even more when I see two. Whether it’s with the naked eye, through the binoculars or through the telescope. All sightings are amazing. Their movements in the air express full control. When they display behaviour to defend or define their territory they make steep dives and climb again to make a looping to go back for a dive. Undulating or pendulum flight is what this behaviour is called.
Last time, I was lucky to see the eagles soar in front of and above the moving moon (see picture). To see that the Eagles have a larger wingspan than the diameter of the moon was amazing. This was a moment where I thought: “Although I don’t have the best camera to get this on a photo, this picture will be on burned on my retina for the rest of my life”. Well, you can have worse things burned on your retina. They seem to chill on the thermals and soar a bit through their territory. Why not? If I could soar I would be soaring all day. The more time I spend here in the mountains, the more I think I was born in the wrong country (without mountains) and born in the wrong nest (without wings). Probably my ancestors took the wrong turn tens or even hundreds of million years ago. You would have amazing eyesight and probably see cape leopards weekly. And the views from high up in the air. Wow that must be amazing. When you’re not on your nest, incubating or caring for your chick, you’re searching for Dassies in the Cederberg or Molerats, Helmeted guineafowl and Angulate tortoises in the Sandveld. I would rather live in the Cederberg, because there are more mountains and less annoying pied crows. I’ve seen some chases between pied crows and the eagles. Sometimes the eagles were being chased and sometimes the eagles chased the crows.Although they fly as if they´re in full control, their walking appears to be clumsy. They walk like criminals. With their head a bit down as if they are hiding something.
Dreams and more
I have even had my first dream about eagles. It took me approximately two weeks of observations. It was a nice dream where I had 3 eagles in view, but I wasn´t sure if the third was a juvenile or another species. I was warned that I would get hooked to the eagles, but I am not afraid of getting hooked. I am an easy victim, because I think I am pretty close to that state. Keeping in mind that I haven´t even seen a chick yet and I not even half way through my fieldwork. During my fieldwork I find myself sexing the eagles when I see one. When one is on the nest I think: “She’s on the nest”. And when I see one flying I think: “He’s flying”. This is unintentional and I don’t know how to get rid of this thought. But as long as I don’t write it in my notebook it doesn’t do any harm.
Next blog will be about how an eagle observer spends his Sundays in the Cederberg.
Here I am, sitting behind my desk. Locked in my 15m2
hut with the rain pouring down on my roof and the wind desperately trying to
get in. I can hear it knocking but I am not answering. With only Jack Johnson
singing his songs. Can´t you see that it´s just raining, ain´t no need to go
outside. After two and a half weeks of solo trips I have felt snow, rain,
clouds and have seen a lot of rainbows, sun and, of course, Black eagles. And
lots of mountains with beautiful views and impressive rock formations, formed
by wind, water and frost.
In my days in the Spanish Pyrenees I read somewhere.
Happiness is only real when shared. Well, that doesn’t count for me. “My”
eagles give me so many air shows and joyful moments (more on this later). And
the views here!!.. From certain spots you can see for many miles (hard to
estimate how far). These views give me goose bumps. I realize what I miss in
the Netherlands. And not to forget the rainbows. Every time I try to approach
them to look for the pot of gold they “ jump” to the next mountain. But one
day. I love it!!
During my last 3 weeks of fieldwork, not to forget that I am
actually working here, I have visited 16 nests in 7 days in the Sandveld. In
this area, I drive from one nest to the other to check their stage of breeding.
At this stage I hope to find them incubating. Some of them have started and
others look promising and spend a lot of time around or on the nest. The pairs that
are incubating spend much time on the nest and regularly swap. In the
Cederberg, on the other hand, I have to hike for hours to the nests where
access is much more difficult. Here they have nests in more remote places and I
spend a lot of time hiking to a good spot to set up my telescope and start my
observations. Here I have visited 12 nests so far. Like the Sandveld, here the
first pairs have initiated incubation. During my hikes I am thrilled by the
views and rock surrounding me. I force myself to stop every now and then to
“feel” the mountains, or to admire the baboons which let me know of their
presence by their impressive barking. They don’t seem to be impressed by my
barks. Luckily I have 5 months to impress them. Or klipspringers which are
checking me out from a rock and react to my whistles by facing me directly.
Most of the times they are in groups of three. After a while they move on and
hop up the rocks with the greatest ease. Also the sightings of Rock Hyrax or Dassies
become more common. Sunbathing on rocks they make their alarm calls. I think
there are not many animals living in the Cederberg which I see before they see
But the Cederberg Mountains bring me strong winds, snow and
low temperatures as well. And the winter hasn’t even started yet. I am curious
what the real winter has to offer. I have learned that bad weather doesn’t
exist. But bad clothing does. Thus a good preparation for a cold day is
important because three hours of not moving with the wind in the face with a
vibrating telescope is tiring. A cloud that comes by and blocks my view on the
nest is most frustrating and leaves me cold. And the rain filling the rivers
which influence my thoughts of whether my bakkie can get through. But the
advice I got from Dawie was. “You just try and learn by experience when the
waterlevel is too high. This means that I just give it a go until I get stuck.
Why not? We’ll see where or when the ship beaches. So far I haven’t had any
Yesterday I had my first sightings
of humans in the field. The first pair consisted of two males and the other a
male and female. Both pairs didn’t show any signs of incubation. And both were
far outside of their territory, but I did not feel threatened. After my two
weeks in the Cederberg I have taken a look at my data on primate abundance. My
preliminary results suggest that the most abundant primate is the Chacma Baboon
(Papio ursinus) followed by humans (Homo sapiens). I have to be cautious
because I don’t have any statistical results to support these thoughts. First I
have to collect more data to confirm my suggestions (More on this later) .
And the Eagles. The Verreaux’s Eagle or Black Eagle. With
their ginormous wingspan of 2 meters. A flying door. Bigger than my wingspan.
The one moment they are checking out part of their territory from a perch or
their nest. The next they are in a thermal with warm rising air to gain height
without spending energy. The ease with which they glide through the air.
Jealous? Yes! And they probably see better than me even without a telescope.
Magical. I want to know how their eyes work. I feel fortunate to spend my time
watching these powerful raptors in this wonderful place.
Two weeks ago Steven Bekker arrived in South Africa to join me with field work for the Black Eagle Project and to work towards his own MSc. All the way from the very flat Netherlands, I am sure he has had many new experiences, but somewhere amongst the eagles and the mountains, this was a real welcome to the special secrets of the Cederberg. In his own words, here's Stevens first blog "Eye to eye with a Cape Leopard". -Megan
Steven at work!
On a cold Tuesday evening at Driehoek,
I am sitting with Dawie, Lizette, Karli and Megan in their living room on
Driehoek. We’re watching TV after a lovely night out at Oasis for their
legendary ribs. Around half past nine Megan and Lizette go to bed and Dawie and
I stay to watch National Geographic. In the next break I feel sleepy and tell
Dawie that I am going to bed. The previous nights I went to my hut without
light and I had only the light of the moon to guide me home. From their house
it is easy to find my way to the corner of the garden and reach the gate, but
after the gate the dark path to the campsite through dense undergrowth and
trees is hard to find. But every night I managed to find my way home. Tonight
Dawie offers me a flashlight. I gratefully accept the offer to have some light
on my way home. I leave the house and disappear into the night. On my way to
the gate only about five meters from the house I stop. Two eyes light up in the
light of my flashlight. I wait and see that there is something lying on the
ground approximately 15 meters from me. It gets up and turns to walk off calmly
through the gate and walks part of my path through the woods. I realize that
I’ve just seen something special but I don’t quite know on what level. I turn
around and walk back to the house. I get in and ask Dawie: How can I tell the
difference between a Caracal and a Cape Leopard because I just saw a cat. Dawie
jumps up and walks with me to the place where I saw it and we follow the path
that the for me unfamiliar feline has followed. At that moment I think we are
not going to find it. Dawie asks what the size was. I show him the height of
the animal and he replies: “That’s a leopard!”. Together we walk down the path
and walk around the piece of forest to arrive at the other side on a more open
space. Dawie sees on the other side of a small river approximately 50 meters
away two eyes light up.
He whispers: “it’s an owl”. But he is in doubt and we
wait. The eyes move and when Dawie imitates the sound of an orphaned lamb, the
“owl” starts moving. “It’s not an owl. It’s a leopard” whispers Dawie and he
attracts/lures the leopard towards us with his lamb cry. After a while the
leopard seats itself on a rock less than 30 meters away from us. He seems
chilled and Dawie says: “I will fetch my camera”. Thrilled from the adrenalin I
stay behind with the light from the flashlight with a leopard, for me, a very short
distance away. When Dawie is gone I hear something in the bushes next to me.
It’s nothing. The leopard starts moving again. This time away from us and
disappears into the night. My lamb imitation is unfortunately not as good as
Dawie’s. When Dawie returns I point him where I saw the leopard for the last
time. We walk around some bushes to get another angle onto the place where I
have seen him for the last time. When Dawie starts imitating the lamb again,
after a while we see a pair of eyes again. “There he is!” we whisper
enthusiastically. And we walk back to the first spot to get a better view. He
reacts strongly on the luring sounds and comes closer. Dawie takes pictures but
because of the limited available light it is very hard to get a good picture.
When he is on the edge of the river and seems to make a jump towards our side.
He doesn’t, but instead he walks off on a path towards a fallen tree to cross
the river. At that moment Megan joins us after searching for us in the dark
when Dawie told her that I had seen my first leopard. The leopard has crossed
the river and is now less than 20 meters away from us in the bushes. There we
are waiting for a leopard to come out of the bushes. I realize that I have no
clue what Dawie’s plans are when he appears from the bushes, but he keeps
imitating the lamb. I am holding the flashlight and on the moment of truth the
light is gone. It does not fade it goes dead in less than a second. Total
darkness. I think we lost our advantage. Dawie whispers: “Back off, slowly.”.
After a while Megan can make a little bit of light with her camera. We walk
back to the house to charge the light and get other lights. We take a breath
from our adventure and I think it’s over. We won’t find it again. With smaller
lights we’re off to search for it again. After searching in a couple of places,
Dawie climbs a rock to get a better view and with his light he searches for the
two eyes. He whispers and points: “There it is again.”. He is back on the other
side of the river. We go to the other side of the river to search for it and
cross the river in the dark via another tree. Dawie is in no time on the other
side of the river. For me it’s harder to get to the other side and Megan behind
me is also relieved when she reaches the other side dry. From there we slide
onto a path and climb a couple of boulders. On approximately 30 meters the
leopard sits calmly on a rock. As soon as he notices us he slides off the rock
and hides behind one. Megan tries to make pictures and although there is almost
no light Dawie still knows where he is.
It is hard to follow its movements. When
Dawie makes calls again it creeps towards us. He whispers: “it is curious of
what we are.”. Only somewhat like 20 meters away it stops and watches us.After approximately 10 minutes it turns and
walks away. He does turn its head when Dawie makes his calls but the leopard walks
off gently. Dawie steps of the rock and continues onto the path to find him
again on the other side. Megan and I follow. We stop on approximately 30 meters
off where we’ve seen it for the last time and Dawie starts making its calls. We
have no clue where the leopard is and Dawie wants to attract it. It could be
hidden right behind a rock less than five meters away from us but Dawie wants
to lure him towards us. Megan and I whisper that it’s perhaps not the best idea
to attract him when we have no idea where it is. Dawie: “Yes, lets get back”
and we walk back to the house. Back in the house we take the time to take a
breath. Dawie gets his rifle to deter the leopard from the livestock with a loud warning into the night sky. Their Anatolian
Sheep dog recently passed away, who would usually protect the livestock, and now there are lambs on the farm. Therefore, a loud bang was needed to send him back into the veld. Because I spotted the
leopard I get the honour of shooting the rifle. This way my first shot ever!! After talking for a while I go back to my hut on the same
path through the trees. I walk on this path with a different feeling. In bed I
relived the overwhelming experience of what I’ve seen tonight. My first Cape
Leopard. Not bad for my first week in the Cederberg Mountains!! -Steven Karel Bekker