Eagle Alert: Chasing a Harpy

Harpy Eagle along Rio Cristalino Photo Stephan Lorenz

I must admit, I have not experienced too many bird chases by boat. Once, I convinced two baffled fishermen to give me a quick lift towards the middle of Tabbs Bay, near Houston, in order to get a better photograph of the first Western Grebe for the area. They must have sensed the desperation in my voice and heartily agreed to spin a few circles in their small johnboat, looking for something black and white with a long neck. I took two attempts, but eventually I secured documenting photographs.

Several years back, I inadvertently found myself in the middle of a chase by boat out of Monterrey Harbor, California. I was surprised how full the vessel was, as we motored out of Fisherman’s Wharf in the early morning and quickly learned that many birders on board were local birders. I enjoyed my first ever pelagic trip and happily added Sooty, Pink-footed, and Buller’s Shearwaters and Black-footed Albatross to my list. Finally, three or four hours into the trip, I learned that we were following a circuitous path, hoping to catch up with a Short-tailed Albatross sighted the previous day, which explained all the locals filling the boat. We never caught up with the albatross, but I of course left the boat thrilled with no less than ten new birds.

This bird chase by boat was decidedly different and distinctly shorter than the majority of twitches. The longest chases for a single rarity that I have committed to extended from Houston to Big Bend National Park and back, a solid eighteen hour round-trip, luckily successful. Some chases, or twitches, include mind-numbing long drives, tedious waits, and sometimes frustrating glimpses of the rarity, or worse, complete misses. Fortunately, this was to be one of the shortest chases with arguably one of the most magnificent raptors at its end.

I was lounging in the dormitory room after a long morning chasing antbirds in the dark understory of Cristalino’s primary rainforest, Brazil. The members of the group I was guiding, two couples from South Africa with their Peruvian guide, were resting in their chalets, preparing for lunch. I heard the radio go off in the office and Sebastian, one of the local boatmen, was speaking hurriedly. I could not pick up on the conversation, but another local guide translated quickly. A group heading downstream had spotted a Harpy Eagle along the river and was currently looking at it. Sebastian came running into the dormitory and exclaimed that he was willing to get us there by boat, we needed to leave now.

I rushed from the building and ran towards the chalets. First, I crossed path with the Peruvian guide and quickly informed him of the situation. He asked whether we would try to look for it after lunch, but sensing my panic and shocked expression, he stated he would collect his four charges right away. A few anxious minutes later, with the group changing from lounging shorts back into field gear, we walked briskly to the boat ramp, where Sebastian jumped into the johnboat, fired up the outboard and organized the seating arrangement. Claudia was in the front of the line, almost more excited than anybody else on board. The boat filled with eight passengers and the boatman nosed the hull downstream. All of us anxiously scanned the riverside trees and coming around the second bend, I spotted the massive bulk of the raptor on the right bank, almost dwarfing the canopy of the tree it had chosen as a perch.

The boat slowed and we drifted quietly along the opposite bank, all the while admiring the bird and snapping photos. The Harpy Eagle turned to look at us, but otherwise appeared quite content on its perch about twenty feet above the water. The bird was an adult with thick legs and long, sharp talons that wrapped fully around the sizable branch. It would flare its double crest while turning its head from side to side, calmly looking upstream, down into the forest, and then at us, as we sat awestruck in a boat that seemed all of a sudden very small and fragile, bopping in the gentle current with nine people and a cornucopia of expensive camera gear. Adult Harpy Eagles are unmistakable, not just by their immense size, but also by the unique combination of the double crest, grey head, black breast and dark back. Within its range, only the Crested Eagle is similar in size and appearance, but adults of this species lack the black breast and have a single long crest.

Harpy Eagles often ignore human observers and allow relatively close approach; I assume they usually do not have to worry about any predators. Our boat started to drift, crossing towards the opposite bank, closer to the raptor, which remained on its perch, only giving us an occasional glance. These large raptors mainly feed on medium sized mammals, especially arboreal monkeys and sloths, but also capture terrestrial agoutis and coatimundis. Other prey includes large birds, macaws and curassows, and snakes and iguanas. Harpy Eagle pairs build huge stick nests in the crown of emergent trees, especially Ceibas. Due to the long incubation and nestling period, Harpy Eagles only breed every second or third year.

More widespread in the past, the species has largely disappeared from its northern range and only a few remain in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. It has also been extirpated in many other areas of Central America and its distribution is shrinking in South America. Being a top predator, Harpy Eagles require large tracts of intact forest and sizable populations or prey animals. Currently the species is listed a near-threatened. Fortunately vast stretches of lowland rain forest remain within the Amazon Basin and the Cristalino Private Reserve protects vital primary forest, which supports a healthy population of these magnificent birds of prey. Harpy Eagles are sighted regularly, especially from the observation towers, but an individual perched merely twenty feet above one’s head is a unique experience of a one-of-a-kind bird. (July 30, 2013)

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Harpy Eagle along Rio Cristalino Photo Stephan Lorenz

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