Category Archives: Martial Eagle

Searching for Eagles in Tsavo

Laila and I spent the last few weeks on safari photographing raptors in Tsavo National Park and at Sokoke Forest at the coast.

It was a productive period which we first began with old friends at Finch Hatton’s in Tsavo West. I started out on crutches thanks to my recent leg and hip injury, but as the warmth increased I soon felt less uncomfortable and got rid of them. We spent two days there looking for Steven or Emily, two Crowned Eagles I released years ago in their forest. Unfortunately we did not see either of them, but we did see many other raptors. We saw a number of Bateleur Eagles and to my relief a good number of vultures roosting away from their normal site at the Kitani Bridge.

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Bateleur Eagle

Laila reminded me that this vulture satellite roost was active in the same spot last year. These vultures are particularly good to see given the extent of poisoning in the areas adjacent and within the park boundaries. A massive female Martial Eagle sat in a tree above our heads unfortunately in poor light. I realize now how much we, as photographers, think in terms of “good light.”

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Martial Eagle

Laila is one of the fastest camera-women I know. She can throw the long lens camera to her eye and shoot a moving target with unnerving accuracy and speed. I try to duplicate the shots with my lens and although pleased with what I achieve I feel totally beaten by the fantastic shots she makes. I have learned to angle the car to her side and have become complacent in knowing that she’ll have the “bird in the bag,” no matter where it moves. She looks a little absurd for she is small and the camera huge. She counterbalances the lens by leaning back and at a distance looks like a perfect “T” shape. I am not surprised that she sometimes complains of a bad back. Some of her pictures are classics, unparalleled to my knowledge by any others. We have been through some trying times and tough moments in which we have both questioned the sanity of our mission. But peering over her shoulder at some of the images captured I am both amazed and excited that we will produce a wonderful collection of images of African raptors. The results have far exceeded my usual overly critical expectations.

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Pygmy Falcon

As we drove we counted the raptors we saw. I try and keep my attention on the road, and Laila usually spots the birds first. I then verify her identification and she writes it down next to the mileage. The data produced does not give a true number of what is around but it is one way of setting a standard and a rough index of species composition and density. There is a clear difference in raptor numbers between rural farmed land and ranches and protected areas. In rural areas which comprise much of the route, there are very few species and very few of them. In protected areas the species diversity increases dramatically as do their numbers. In ranch land or areas in which some natural habitat is still relatively undisturbed raptor numbers can be good, but typically made up of a handful of tolerant species. It is plausible therefore to look up at the sky and tell where you are! The bigger message is of course that many raptors are now dependent upon protected areas and active tolerance of wildlife.

Tsavo West has the advantage of having mountains and ridges on which you can sit and gaze out across the plains beneath with the wind blowing vertically up the side. It is on these ridges like these that eagles and falcons slope-soar. They can move without a wing beat and travel fast. On migration it is just these slopes that raptors use to lessen their energy requirements. In mid to late November there are numerous migrants that sneak in under cover of rain clouds feeding on rising clouds of winged termites. But the rains were late. We did see a number of Steppe Eagles a few Harriers and Eurasian Hobbies.

We went on to stay with Charlotte and Norbert Rottcher at Vipingo on the north coast. They live on a 100 acre patch of mostly indigenous forest with large bat caves. They have breeding Barn Owls, Fish Eagles and Black Sparrowhawks in this remarkably rich and bio-diverse area that is crying out for proper conservation status. We spent one evening at the mouth of a bat cave watching the frantic flight of hundreds of fruit bats while Genet Cats lurked to seize those that collided and fell. Then we went on to meet William Kombe at Sokoke Forest in the hope of photographing the rare Southern Banded Snake Eagle. We saw two but time did not allow us to linger and we pressed on to Tsavo East via Malindi.

Laila will write the next entry regarding Tsavo East and our lucky encounter with large migratory flocks of small falcons in Tsavo West. The day after we arrived back from safari Laila returned home to spend Christmas with her family. It was a fast pace of high intensity work followed by sudden cessation and despite having a mountain of work to complete I feel at a loss right now.

For the Africa Raptor Expedition to proceed on schedule it is essential that I find a home for the last bird in my care, the Bearded Vulture. The car, test driven over some of the roughest sections has done well mechanically but fails in being properly outfitted for a trans-Africa trip. These issues must be resolved quickly when Laila returns and we continue with our work across southern Africa in January 2009.

Small area Conservancies

On the 4 Feb I went to Nyeri and stayed at Sungare Ranch overlooking the still well forested Emboni River. I had been asked to remove all the camera mounts we had set up in a Crowned Eagle nest in the Aberdares in Nov 2007. David Gulden had taken some amazing pictures but again in his self depreciated way he had canned all but one. It was of the female coming in with her leg extended just before she hit the nest with the chick in frame begging. It was unlike all others for the picture had been taken from above. Although I liked it, I admit to being a bit more conventional and like to see the eagles eyes and body. I was keen to see the catalogue of prey species brought into the nest, as this camera work could so much help in getting data. But so focused were they on their specific shot that they had over-looked the peripheral. There was some good idea on what prey species they were bringing in, and this is always useful. We hope to try again.

Although home life is hardly dull it allows too much time for self reflection and right now it wasn’t very promising. Climbing trees, looking at eagles, talking of leopards and bongos was a good distraction. But I was keen to see what species of prey these eagles brought into the nest. The other nest was less than 2km from the park boundary, and for some reason I assumed this newer pair was deeper inside the park. But on getting to the nest above the canopy I saw people going about their business, houses, schools, churches and shops all pressed up against the fence, 1.5km distant. Despite this close proximity the first nest had not one domestic animal remains and neither did this. If they had, then those that aggressively persecute these eagles would have some justification. But I realised just how small this park was and how delicate the status of eagles is. It is already an island. A mountain top fenced off from people. I recalled the days when elephants routinely crossed from Mt Kenya, through the Amboni River and passed the Mweiga Forest, through poorly located elite coffee farms and into the Aberdares, but that is now over. We all accept that, but few are concerned about what the implications of isolation means.

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Female Peregrine. Solio 5th Feb 2008. Possibly Falco peregrinus calidus, the Siberian/northern Eurasia race of large falcons.

The first afternoon we went into Solio Reserve, a 15,000 acre privately run sanctuary that I had last visited as a boy 30 years ago with the same Crowned Eagle (Rosy) I have today. I remembered it so well as we then saw 9 leopards in one day, a pride of lion, 2 cheetah and some 50 Black and white rhinos. The longer I am away from something I cherished, the less keen I am to go back……..because it is often a tremendous disappointment. Magnificent falls cascading down cliffs were in my youth wild locations, are now lined by curio shops, neat guard rails, an entry gate and tourist cling-ons selling all manner of trinkets. Many of our parks and beaches have the same flavour and are places I avoid. I wondered if Solio would be the same. But, despite the news that Solio has had to sell land for sub-division and were financially struggling the moment we entered the gate (unchanged), rhinos heaved about in profusion. The well planned routes took one through a Yellow Fever Forest that fed on a small perennial stream, into large swampy dams. The plains around were typified by the black cotton specialist grass Thermeda triangia, and large areas were covered in 2.5m high thickets of Karissa, a bright green spiny bush with jasmine smelling flowers. I was suddenly aware that knew where I was, anticipated a turning and a large dam for example. A little of that first boyish excitement I had experience here so long ago came back. This place hadn’t changed, not one iota. Along with the curse of growing up comes altered perceptions. Things shrink for example. Parents, dogs and cars get smaller as do gardens. This had got smaller, for soon we were at the other end of the reserve and had to turn around. I had no real recollection how big it was long ago, but importantly the habitat was then contiguous with the reserve sitting by itself surrounded by similar land, from Mt Kenya to its east and the Aberdares to its west. Elephants were a pest in those days, because they would break the rhino proof fence. In fact this game proof fence was about the only fence elephants met on their annual trek between the mountains.

Solio had been first established as a rhino sanctuary, a gift I understood from the owner to his wife. I may be wrong but I recall the first White Rhinos being briefly held at the main ranch HQ by Rodney Elliot. You could stand on their heads in the crate, they were that tame. Incapable of jerking their heads vertically up-wards because of their huge hump on their shoulders and neck and docile in the extreme, these monsters twice the size of Black rhinos were exotics.

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Five White Rhino, Solio. With Mt Kenya in background. Out of frame are 7 more rhino!

They came from South Africa, and never existed in Kenya. I never understood the fascination for these exotic animals who were first introduced into Meru Reserve many years prior to Solio. Despite being afforded 24hr protection they were all poached. I am personally very curious about other exotic animals, such as Tigers, Mountain lions, Tapir, Gorillas and Harpy Eagles, but I suspect that if I proposed introducing them into our parks and reserves someone would leap out of their seat with indignation. Filled with misguided sense of national pride petrol stations, match boxes and rugged paint cans today have as their insignia the exotic South African White Rhino……..not our local and much meaner Black Rhino. It seems as though people can’t tell the difference. Its like watching Tarzan rock up on an Indian elephant, some folks just don’t get it. Be that as it may the White Rhinos have bred and bred and are to be seen gambolling about in their family groups. They are enormous and their numerical profusion staggers those, like me, that are gradually accepting the paltry numbers of wildlife in our parks. Black rhinos too a bit more sullen and less family orientated lurked in dozens. Reticulated Giraffe stormed by clouds of Yellow Billed Tick birds stood browsing loofty tree tops. Buffaloes plastered in mud wandered about in large herds. A small female leopard tucked into a tussock in the open tried in vain to keep out of sight of concerned Waterbucks. Lion tracks were everywhere and we knew they were hidden in the Marsh. Overhead a female Crowned Eagle stood sentinel gazing down at impala calves (see pics). Nearby a young Martial Eagle called fresh from the nest, as were some three families of newly fledged Gabar Goshawks. A large female Peregrine sat in the tops of a dead acacia (see above) and nearby roosted dozens of gorged vultures with a handful of Steppe and Tawny Eagles. Impala, waterbuck, warthog, Beisa Oryx, Grant’s Gazelles, Kirks Dik Dik were are such high density that I had to rethink.

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Female Crowned Eagle Solio. Note closeup of left pupil and iris. The lens appears opaque, the pupil too small and the distal part of the iris distorted. The eye may be blind or poor vision. The eagle may not be doing well but it may be possibly assisted by its mate.

We little realise the potential holding capacity of wildlife in our parks when we drive for hours and see a dozen animals. It is easy, if it is one’s first trip, to take this first count as “base-line data”. An annoying trend (especially true with my colleagues in raptor work), is to assume that should one’s own trip be the first one has personally done, then the count then made is the standard from which all changes can be then gauged. Good science, no matter who rigorously applied isn’t going to give the slightest clue of former numbers, a matter which drives me blue with rage but unable to counter. It is no use saying that there were so much more, we need to know numbers, not factual accounts. I was a kid, how was I to know no-one was counting raptors back then? One way to get close to these “former days of pristine glory” is to find locations that are truly wild and untouched, so much so that the negative influences of man is taken out of the equation. Count here and then count outside, and you get the picture. Somehow I wasn’t comfortable with this either. Here in Solio you know it is teeming with wildlife at greater densities than that which occurs anywhere but the Mara (at the height of immigration from the Serengeti). It has water and reasonable rain (although the nitrogen fixing acacia forest plays a large role in maintaining the green house conditions for grass/shrub growth). I suspect it exceeds the Mara when the migrant ungulates have left, as resident wildlife has dramatically declined recently. Raptor abundance was so much more evident in Solio than in the Mara, which we have identified as having a poor representation in terms of species diversity. (This says an enormous amount about the environmental quality of these two areas, but that is another story). But Solio is obviously manicured, I’d drop my camera lens umpteen times for example because in frame was a neatly chain-sawed tree stump, or fence, or look-out post, or bridge or road. Solio is hardly pristine, but it is quite and has very few visitors. It has few tourists, no lodges, no invasive livestock and accompanying nosiy herders, no people other than those that should be there. Sure they had a spate of rhino poaching that was said to be committed by people who should have been the chief conservators, but it was brief and left no lasting scar on the environmental health of the reserve. I believe that the one factor that makes Solio so productive is its low numbers of people.

Knowing that my own perceptions as a child must have changed I temper what I see today against that which I must assume is wishful thinking. Nostalgia paints much prettier pictures and as you get older you assume it all to be painful self deception, a nasty trick of the mind to make you feel sad. But I do recall vast numbers, and bash into my student’s heads that raptors and wildlife of all shapes and sizes in the past were so much more prevalent that there is absolutely no way they are ever going to get a grasp of this. You could not stop a car anywhere without there being birds of prey all around you. I put this to the test as a boy with my Dad coming back from safari once. It was true, raptors were everywhere. The same was true with wildlife. My Dad and I came around a corner in Tsavo East and were charged by 5 (Black!) rhino! I recall seeing a single herd of some 1000 elephants there too. Lions were so boring you didn’t even drop a gear. Cheetahs you saw everyday and Leopards you saw every few days, and eagles, there were just so many. Today you can drive for hours and see none. I’ve worked in the south westen part of Tsavo West, the country’s largest park and accepted lion haven for 7 years, and seen them distant and shy about half a dozen times during a normal game drive (I have encountered them more often on foot however!). I see lions more frequently outside my back door, and I am not joking in the least. I have grown used to the fact. My level of expectation has declined.

Wildlife conservation in Kenya owed much to Solio thanks to it maintaining Black Rhinos during the shameful 1970-80s when the national parks, reserves and public lands witnessed the near exterminated the lot. As Kenya recovered its wildlife management Solio distributed rhinos to parks and private reserves. There is no question that small conservancies can make massive contributions to the continued existence of so many animals as this one case proved for us in Kenya. Demonstrably government run conservation areas can and have in the past failed, and private sanctuaries therefore have a very important role to play. This is recognised by the government and rhinos now are being promoted on many private and community conservancies across Kenya. Private and community run conservancies small as they are, play a crucial role in wildlife conservation in Kenya, by de-isolating the government parks and reserves, spreading responsibility and offering different management methods.

In David Quammen’s book, “The song of the Dodo” he repeatedly gave evidence that species diversity and abundance is in direct relation to the size of the land given it. On islands evolution often takes interesting paths due to lack of competition and extinction is always perilously close. Forest islands of differing sizes left standing in South America by massive beef ranches experimentally show that the smaller the island the less species diversity. He illustrates the impossibility of keeping representative species of biota from large eco-systems inside small secure fortresses, for isolation will surely take its toll and species will certainly disappear. Those species already rare or less numerous are the first to go. Those higher up the trophic level (predators), also perish quickly as do those that require large territories. Those that could be safely kept in confinement will in time (and not much time) evolve independently of its kind. In Kenya we seldom think in this way, possibly duped by the continual Hollywood self image we give ourselves of vast expanses of unoccupied bush. But the truth is that we already do have islands in which we expect wildlife to be confined. The stereotyped Kenyan answer to dealing with animals in the countryside is to “put it back in the park where it belongs”. Often as not it doesn’t ‘belong’ in the park and in putting it there one messes with nature….a big no no as all would agree. If all wildlife was confined to our parks as is expected (and wanted) then we could farm, rear livestock, build towns and cities in peace. Happy in knowing that our parks are ‘self sustained’ by foreign tourists (an oxymoron by the way), and in keeping all our wildlife protected. The fact is that even if our parks were true sanctuaries devoid of livestock intrusions and not packed with minibuses, they would be too small to alone sustain many species of wildlife. Take for example the Martial Eagle. It requires territories of 150-300 sq km. Nairobi National Park is therefore too small for a single pair. In 1995 a colleague Carter Ong did her degree on those eagles and found 3 pairs squeezed into this small space. That would mean that each pair would have 38sq/km territories until she put radios on and found that they flew far beyond its borders and did indeed have very large territories and only returned to the relative peace of Nairobi Park to roost and breed. Those eagles today fly over industrial estates and very dense human populations were nothing remains of their natural diet. As predicted the pairs have since declined as they have on the Athi Kapiti plains nearby under large ranch management.

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Martial Eagle on kill.

Many wildlife conservationists are confused. Why they ask, do Martial Eagles need so much space? Surely not….a lion can exist happily in the same park at densities of one to just over 3sq/km. Black rhinos at one to 1.6sq/km. The Martial Eagle cannot of course maintain a viable population at less than one pair/national park. Over half of our National Parks and reserves can only support less than one to 2 pairs. In the Mara for example we would expect 10 pairs, but we know there to be much less than this. On 2,387sq/km of large ranches on which I live we would expect nearly 16 pairs but I know of only 3 today. Of the 3 Martial pairs I knew of in Tsavo West in 1999, none exist today, but constant cattle intrusions is the all too obvious reason why those have gone. Martials are not particularly chosey, they don’t mind people too much, but recently we seem to have tipped the balance out of their favour.

Isolation of protected areas will lead to decline in species diversity and their numerical density. Of that we can be sure. As in a shrinking pond filled with catfish, densities will rise and give an artificial sense of good management. Squeezed into small spaces the appearance of abundance may not in fact be healthy at all. Elephants crammed into protected areas should not necessarily be a cause for celebration for example. Such animals that increase over the ability of the land to sustain them, either from immigration or reproduction, will crash. They rise or fall back to their normal population density for a given area regardless of what we want. Given these one could focus on those species most unlikely to survive current wildlife conservation practises. Casting all biases aside, and trying to be as unprejudiced as possible, large eagles, vultures are top contenders for dismal futures under current “island conservation management” strategies. Large mammalian predators do not rank so highly due to their relative quick maturation period, high reproductive rate and relatively small defended territories but Wild Dog, certainly join the elite group due to their rarity and ephemeral nature.

In looking afresh at Solio, a tiny isolated island surrounded by a fence I felt a much needed euphoria at the possibility of making a huge difference to the national commitment to wildlife conservation. I have tried to make similar conservancies and have come up against critics who I would much wish to drag by the heels into Solio to prove them wrong. Where I live for example has as much, if not more potential than Solio. We have fantastic views, rivers, swamps and although many of the ranches are very keen to make a fenced in conservancy, there simply isn’t the money to start. But we must do something for recent events focus more and more on division of land, which is the death knell for wildlife.

Why not accept the change and look forward to securing the magnificent protected areas? But these places alone do not have Kenya’s entire biotic diversity, nor are they capable of conserving them if they did encompass all species. Both theory and fact assure us it cannot be so. In order to do so, interconnected conservancies on private/community or government lands must be encouraged in the national wildlife conservation policies of today.