Black watch

I was fortunate enough to be invited by long-standing friends Bill and Judy Pierce, to join them at their bush retreat at Eagle’s Rock Estate. It is so-called because of the pair of Black Eagle’s which nest and hunt along the cliffs in the gorge through which the Olifants river flows on to the Loskop dam. This gorge runs along the north and eastern boundary of the estate. Bill and Judy invited me knowing I really wanted to try to get some images of the Black Eagles and their latest chick before it fledged and left the nest.

It was late August when I visited Eagle’s Rock Estate, so the sun rose around 6h30 in the morning and it was chilly. The Black Eagle’s nest was on an western rock face of the gorge. This meant it was only possible to photograph the chick until around 11h00 before there was too much shadow.

I readily jumped at the opportunity to try to photograph these Black Eagles. I say try because it turned out to be considerably more difficult than I had envisaged. Firstly, I had my tripod sitting on a flattish rock at the edge of the cliff. I had to be mindful not to walk off the edge in my excitement. Believe me when the eagles fly passed, it is exciting – these are impressive raptors both for their size but also their dramatic colouring. It was also fairly windy at the edge of the cliff a, which is why the eagle’s chose to nest there – the constant updraft.

Unfortunately there was no safe way to scale down the face of the cliff and get close to the nest, especially with heavy camera kit, so I had to settle for a reasonable view which was quite far away.

The sandstone cliffs on the west side of the gorge were spectacular. They are roughly weathered by the wind and rain creating dramatic texture and colour. The warm light of the rising morning sun cast a beautiful pinkish light on the sandstone.

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It was not always easy to get a clear shot of the Black Eagles flying passed. Firstly they are fast and secondly the shape of the cliff face only allowed a partial view. I apologise in advance for the quality of the images but this trip turned out to be more about the birding and incredible sightings and less about the quality of the photography because of the distance from the subjects and direction of light. Nevertheless, I thought the images were interesting enough to write a post about them.

“The most amazing lesson in aerodynamics I ever had was the day I climbed a thermal in a glider at the same time as an eagle. I witnessed, close up, effortlessness and lightness combined with strength, precision and determination.”

 –Norman Foster

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The two mornings of the weekend I spent on the cliff edge trying to photograph these majestic creatures, the adults spent very little time with the chick, perhaps five minutes in total. The nest was substantial but the chick was unprotected from the cold morning breeze. The chick’s only option was to huddle low down in the cup of the nest for a modicum of protection from the wind

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The chick called often but to no avail. When it got to hot, the chick would hide around the side of one of the rocks at the back of the nest. Although substantial in size, the chick’s feathers were still forming and it looked very gangly and awkward. A far cry from the majestic, effortless, aerodynamic parents.

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The Black Eagle’s nest  can be seen about a third of the way up the next image just to the left of centre. It was a long distance away, not ideal but I was not going to risk ending my photographic passion in a heap at the bottom of the cliff.

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You had to be quick. The female did not stay with the chick long. The first time was to bring a small branch with green leaves and she only stayed less than a minute. The second time was to bring what looked like the hind quarters of a springhare. The second time she stayed only a few minutes until the chick was feeding on the food she had brought.

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This trip vividly showed the difference between birding and bird photography. The birding aspect of this visit was superb. Not only were there Black Eagles in the area, but a juvenile Martial Eagle flew passed as did two Fish Eagles. The real treat were the Lanner and Peregrine Falcons which also lived along this stretch of the gorge. If you thought photographing flying Black Eagle’s by was tricky, try Lanner or Peregrine Falcons, both are speedsters especially the Peregrine. The next three images are of a sparring session between a Lanner and Peregrine. It was far away so the image quality is not great but the sightings were unusual. How often do you see a Lanner and Peregrine Falcon in aerial combat.

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 “May your spirit soar throughout the vast cathedral of your being.

May your mind whirl joyful cartwheels of creativity.

May your heart sing sweet lullabies of timelessness.”

 – Jonathan Lockwood Huie

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 The Peregrine is noticeably smaller and darker than the Lanner. I had never seen a Lanner flying upside down before.

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 While the female Black Eagle was briefly with her chick, the male stood guard on a jutting rock. This Lanner Falcon was not impressed by the Black sentinel. I can only assume the daring fly by was due to the Lanners having a nest close by.

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 The male and female Black Eagle hunt cooperatively as do Golden Eagles. The pair bonding looked to be strong from the small time I spent in “Black watch”.

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 I found this article in the April-May 2012 issue of the erstwhile excellent Africa Birds and Birding magazine which I thought had particular clarity about nature and conservation.

“What has Nature to us?

Nature gives us understanding of ourselves, of our nation, of our species. Poets through the ages have placed humans in the context of other species, and from this, we draw a crucial understanding of the way we are and the life we lead.

Nature gives us a sense of human achievements, of the control that we have over the planet and over our own destiny – a sense of almost limitless power. And with that, it adds a sense of humility: the realisation that we cannot create a grassland or rain forest, only destroy one.

Nature tells us that we are lonely in our human condition, but that we are not alone, and are one of many. It tells us to feel both pride and shame, and gives us perspective and wonder.

Nature is the way that the planet works and it gave us our existence in the first place. Life – ours and that of every other living entity on the planet – depends on the great and complex web of life that we call biodiversity.”

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,


4 thoughts on “Black watch

  1. Thank you for this wonderful account. I was hoping to have a similar experience in the Paarl District of the Western Cape on my cousin’s farm. I attach two photos of the time I found the chick, a real bonus, but then sadly have to relate when I went back five weeks later armed with a longer lens there was no chick, we don’t know what happened. This is one of the very few pairs who nest in a tree, they have been there for nearly thirty years that we know of.

    Are you going back to Eagles Nest, Mashatu soon? Did you hear that the lioness had three cubs and brought them out four or five days ago?

    Keep your wonderful nature stories coming.

    Kind regards

    Sue Goodman


    *Sue Goodman* 076 762 6175 (cell) 0865107167 (fax)

    • Thanks Sue for your positive comments, much appreciated. Interesting that the Black Eagles you saw should be nest in a tree. It must be a big one and probably no suitable cliffs close by. I intend to keep trying to get some really good images of Black Eagles. I am only going back to Eagle’s Nest in February 2015. Maifala indicated that the pregnant lioness would only bring out her cubs three weeks after they were born – he was spot on.
      Best wishes,

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