Martial the pride

It was 7h00 and we had stopped on a rise in Mara North to watch the “double-crossing” lion pride. The pride comprised cubs and lionesses which were lying in the grass out in the open.  The sun was rising, and the light was soft and bright.  The lionesses moved closer to a thicket of bushes adjacent to a pool of water near the top of the rise. 

“The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.”~ John Muir

About thirty metres to the north of the lion pride was an adult Martial eagle sitting on the rock watching the lion pride.

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We could not understand why this Martial eagle sat and intently watched the pride for what must have been half an hour. Just as unusual was that the lionesses ensured the cubs stayed close and did not wander too far from the cover of the bushes.

We sat silently watching this strange stand-off. Eventually we asked Akatch, our Mara guide, what was going on and he said the Martial was waiting and watching for an opportunity to snatch one of the smallest lion cubs.

I had never heard of this behaviour before – a Martial eagle snatching a lion cub. Akatch said he had actually seen this happen some years before. A little research corroborated this behaviour and lion cubs do get taken by Martial eagles in the Mara. While not common it has happened a number of times before.

“The strangeness is interpreted from our limited experience. This veil of inexperience falls away as nature reveals relationships which never thought possible. As strangeness turns to knowledge so we learn about the infinite intelligence which binds our natural world together.” ~Mike Haworth

Anyone who has waited for a large bird of prey to do something, knows only too well that they can sit and watch their surroundings intently for hours. Eventually the Martial figured that the lionesses had this situation too closely guarded and it took off. Interestingly, it flew off and circled some distance away probably watching to see if the lion cubs came out from the bushes and started to play.

This is Africa’s largest bird of prey, even bigger than a Crowned eagle. The Martial will hunt mainly on the wing, soaring above the bushveld. They have excellent eye sight and are known to be able to spot prey from up to six kilometres away. This eagle weighs around 6.5 Kg and has a wingspan of about 2.6 metres. 

Martial eagles’ diet consists of  birds such as  guineafowl, geese, francolins, storks and bustards, and have been known to take on a Kori bustard. Martials will also prey on hares, hyraxes, small antelope such as duiker and steenbok,  impala calves, some monkeys, mongooses and, on occasions, the young of serval,  civet and wild cats, jackals and lions. They will also go for snakes and monitor lizards.

Eagles usually kill their prey with an elongated, sharp hind toe-claw, which is referred to as the hallux-claw. It is usually the largest talon in the eagle’s foot with three front  toes and one back one.  This hallux-claw can grow to 51mm, similar to the three largest eagles in the world, Philippines, Stellar’s Sea Eagle, and Harpy Eagle. The inner toe and claw on the front of the foot of the Martial eagle is longer than the other two and is almost the same size as the hallux-claw. This can be seen clearly in the next image as this Martial eagle takes off. The long large middle toes and claw is thought to be an adaptation for hunting in long grass.

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Martial eagles are sexually dimorphic with the female being around 10 percent larger in body size and around 35 percent heavier than the male. The upper parts are dark brown as is its head, neck and chest. The belly is white and legs are white with black or dark brown spots. This eagle has menacing bright yellow eyes.

The Martial eagle can spend extended periods soaring looking for prey. This eagle is estimated to be able to see prey five kilometres away, with acuity 3 to 3.5 times that of a human being. The Martial is also known to sit for hours camouflaged in a bush or tree ready to ambush at any point.

“One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar” ~ Helen Keller

Once the Martial had flown off, the pride came out of the cover of the bushes to drink at the adjacent pool of water. The adults remained cautious and kept looking up to ensure their cubs were not about to be attacked by an avian predator.

The Martial eagle is diurnal and prefers open savannah, alongside woodlands and thorn bush habitats. I have only ever seen a solitary Martial in the bush but they obviously get together to breed.

“Named after Mars, the Roman god of war, this powerful hunter dominates with little need to fight. It uses spiraling thermals in the African skies to rule its domain from high above the plains, soaring effortlessly for hours on broad wings .”~ Mike Haworth

The Martial flew off and circled the area a few times before finding some bushes to perch in about 100 metres further away. The extra distance brought the lions out from their cover and they went down to the adjacent pool to drink. 

At birth lion cubs weigh only around three pounds and are completely helpless. They are usually born away from the pride for their safety and are united with the rest of the pride around three to four months later. In the Mara and Serengeti only one in five, or even less, make it to adulthood. Martial eagles being only one possible cause of the death rate.

After sating their thirst, the cubs followed the adults to lie in an outcrop of  rocks in the open. The Martial did not attempt an attack but the possibility certainly held our excitement for an extended period. We were reluctant to leave the scene but with nothing happening this meant investing time when the morning light was at its best. While no attack occurred the story caught our imagination and was worth the investment.

The Martial made one last swooping circle before catching a thermal to get high up to soar above the open grasslands of the Mara.

There is never a day in the bush when I do not learn something new. Superficially you would have thought that lions would have it all their own way on the open plains – not so!  Size and numbers play a critical role in “plain survival”.  It is very seldom you will see all lions lying down fast asleep unless there are no cubs in the pride. All the normal behavioural rules are continually being broken in the grass plains .

“If you don’t make the effort to get out you will never get to see nature’s magic which will surely surprise you, and fill you with wonder and humility.” ~ Mike Haworth

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

Have fun,

Mike

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