African Hawk-Eagle

I have not got a photographic trip planned for the next six weeks so I have decided to do a series of posts on a few species which have caught my imagination.

“Life is just so interesting and complicated and beautiful. Every day, every interaction is different. There’s so much floating around that I would find it really hard to get bored. I’m interested in creating in some way or another, whether it’s photography or writing or just walking through the world.”
~ Alejandro Escovedo

This week I have focused on the African Hawk-Eagle. We find two species of hawk-eagle in southern Africa, the African Hawk-Eagle and the Ayres Hawk-Eagle. The African Hawk-Eagle is resident  and territorial and is found from sub-Sahara to South Africa, while the Ayres Hawk Eagle is an intra-African migrant. The only time I have ever seen an Ayres Hawk Eagle was with my long- standing friend, Adrian Lombard, when we were driving up to his parents farm in Inyanga in the eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe back in the 1960s.

Another African Hawk-Eagle looking for prey early one morning in Mashatu.

You will usually find this hawk-eagle in woodland and savanna areas, not at high altitudes and dense forest areas.

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This raptor first caught my imagination when I was around 10 years of age. Multi-generational family friends, the Condys, always had a wild life menagerie in and around their home in then Salisbury, now renamed Harare, in Zimbabwe. John Condy was a double doctorate veterinary researcher in Rhodesia in the days before it became Zimbabwe. John Condy invariably had all sorts of weird and wonderful wild animals in and around their house. He was one of the first people I came across who practised falconry. He had a profound influence on many now successful falconers in Zimbabwe and South Africa, notably Adrian Lombard.  Besides Lanner Falcons, he had an African Hawk-Eagle which he called Nimbus. The name had serious connotations. Nimbus is a luminous cloud or a halo surrounding a supernatural being or a saint. Nimbus was an adult African Hawk-Eagle. It was large aggressive and had piercing yellow eyes.

“Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows”.

~John Betjeman

One afternoon, John Condy told Mike, his eldest son, and I to get a glove and take some minced meat and go and feed Nimbus. No problem. We naively thought this could be fun so off we went with glove and the minced meat, having never done this before. Once we got into  the “chicken run” enclosure  where Nimbus was being kept, this raptor lunged at us repeatedly. Nimbus was restrained by jesses secured around his legs and the jesses were attached to a rope which was tied to his perch, so provided we did not get too close he could not get hold of us. Nimbus was big, in a 10 year old’s eyes, especially with fully extended wings. I was shaken at the degree of aggression Nimbus displayed. I think it must have been one of the first occasions I realised that there are some wild things that cannot be tamed. Needless to say we threw the minced meat down below Nimbus’s perch and backed out the enclosure intact. The idea of getting Nimbus onto the glove and feeding him was not going to happen.

African Hawk-Eagle surveying its territory from a high vantage point along a river in the Mashatu Game Reserve. This was a fairly elderly bird but very aggressive. We watched it attack a Fish Eagle in flight.

I never really thought about Nimbus again until I first visited Mashatu Nature Reserve in south-eastern Botswana, a couple of years ago. We had just crossed the Majale river on our way back to Eagle’s Nest camp. As we drove up and out of the river, in a tree overlooking the river next to the dirt track, sat a adult African Hawk-Eagle.

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“The very essence of instinct is that it’s followed independently of reason”.

~Charles Darwin

While we were looking at this African Hawk-Eagle, a Fish Eagle flew past along the river course. Instantly, the African Hawk-Eagle saw the Fish Eagle it launched itself out of the tree and flew low and fast along the riverbed after the Fish Eagle.

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At the last second of the attack, the African Hawk-Eagle pulled up into a steep climb and rose like a rocket towards the slower Fish Eagle. The Fish Eagle must have heard rather than seen the Hawk-Eagle coming but managed to avoid getting hit. The smaller African Hawk-Eagle quickly banished the much larger Fish Eagle from that part of the river. The speed and aggression of the attack was a spectacle, and reminded me of Nimbus.

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On most occasions when we visit Mashatu we see a solitary African Hawk-Eagle. This eagle is known to be a cooperative hunter with one bird initiating the chase and the other finishing the attack. I can only imagine what a show that must be. The African Hawk-Eagle has especially acute eyesight which allows it to be a highly adaptive hunter. At times it is a perch hunter stooping down onto its prey from a high tree. Other times, it displays its Aquila character soaring like an Eagle and hunting cooperatively. It is also capable of hunting more like a Sparrowhawk, manoeuvering through trees using its long tail, which can be fanned out, for steering in tight turns. The next image shows a African Hawk-Eagle perched near  the top of a high tree in Amboseli National Park. The variety of images in this post show that the African Hawk-Eagle is found from Kenya down to around the tropic of Capricorn.

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“The world is endlessly fascinating to those who take the time to look.”
 ~Marty Rubin

The African Hawk-Eagle’s scientific name is Aquila spilogaster. Aquila  means “eagle” in latin and “spilo” means “spotted” in Greek and gaster means “stomach” in Greek.  Aquila eagles have the characteristic feathers on their legs and a large hind talon which is used for piercing its prey’s vertebra or skull in the kill. Like most eagles, the African Hawk-Eagle has yellow feet. This Hawk-Eagle preys on small mammals, such as hares, hyrax, squirrels, mongooses and monkeys, and reptiles such as lizards. monitors and snakes, and birds which range from Go-away birds to gamebirds, hornbills, doves, plovers and even herons.

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The African Hawk-Eagle is a medium-sized eagle at about 55–65 cm in length. It is much smaller than a Martial Eagle which is around 80 centimetres in length. The upper parts are blackish. Its underparts are white, heavily streaked with black. The trailing edge of the wings and tail have a broad black bar. The sexes are similar in colour but as with most raptors the female is larger than the male. There is active siblicide (younger sibling dies after repeated attacks by the older sibling) among African Hawk-Eagle chicks but the surviving young bird develops a rufous colouration prior to its black adult plumage.

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The common wisdom seems to be that eagles are generally  larger birds than hawks. This is a generalisation as the some of the larger hawks are larger than the smaller eagles. The next image shows the distinctive broad black trailing edge on the underside of its wings and tail. It is not always easy to see the blotching on its belly from a distance. From below the African Hawk-Eagle is easily differentiated from a Martial Eagle because its neck is not black to dark-brown and the tailing edges of the wings and tail feathers do not have the broad black band of the African Hawk-Eagle.

African Hawk-Eagle soaring over the Chobe Rivber. This is one aggressive hunter. A big raptor with distinctive markings.

“Is it possible, I wonder, to study a bird so closely, to observe and catalogue its peculiarities in such minute detail, that it becomes invisible? Is it possible that while fastidiously calibrating the span of its wings or the length of its tarsus, we somehow lose sight of its poetry? That in our pedestrian descriptions of a marbled or vermiculated plumage we forfeit a glimpse of living canvases, cascades of carefully toned browns and golds that would shame Kandinsky, misty explosions of color to rival Monet? I believe that we do. I believe that in approaching our subject with the sensibilities of statisticians and dissectionists, we distance ourselves increasingly from the marvelous and spell binding planet of imagination whose gravity drew us to our studies in the first place.

That is not to say that we should cease to establish facts and verify our information, but merely to suggest that unless those facts can be imbued with the flash of poetic insight then they remain dull gems; semi-precious stones scarcely worth the collecting.”
~ Alan Moore

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

Have fun,

Mike

 

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