Category Archives: Raptors

Raptor Camp Update

September 2013 update
The terrorist attack in Nairobi has left us all in confusion. None know their objectives, but one thing is certain. There has been a show of national unity that has allowed all of us to feel a sense of patriotism.
In the last few months I have had much to do. First I have committed myself to moving to Soysambu Conservancy. At the Little Owl Sanctuary, run by Sarah Higgins I have been busy tending to 4 free flying hawks and doing multiple operations to save the wing of an eagle owl and the leg of a sparrowhawk.

Female Black Sparrowhawk pinned leg

Female Black Sparrowhawk pinned leg

There are now some 40 birds and it could grow forcing big changes upon both of us.
We had a visitation from Prof’ John Cooper and his wife Margaret, both very much involved in raptor work, the former a vet the latter versed in law with respect to raptor care in the UK. It was a testing period as the basic foundation for accepting any public participation in all matters to do with wildlife remains absent. Thus for them to present a series of lectures on raptor rehab (on 3rd July 2013) opens a can of worms that could have devastating consequences unless very cautiously worded. Thankfully although KWS stated the legal difficulties of public participation, at the same time all acknowledged the value we collectively have contributed. It highlighted the inconsistencies prevalent in conservation policy in Kenya where legislation and government resources do not meet the facts on the ground. It brought to light levels of ignorance in the understanding of raptors by our veterinary departments that must be improved. We were repeatedly reminded that raptors were a nuisance (in eating chickens), and were disease vectors (in anthrax…which they are not). It ended on a positive note; the need to know more, and Prof Cooper gave us no excuse as he reminded us all that Kenya was one of the first countries in the world to take on raptor medicine. If only bureaucracy gave us a chance!
Not coincidently I fell victim to recurrent exotic disease that may be a Lyme disease type as I fretted and stressed over the outcome of the above. I took the period of enforced “go slow” to recover and focus on treating the hawks and owls at Naivasha.

Dave the male African Goshawk

Dave the male African Goshawk

As if to illustrate the point KWS from Nakuru bought in 4 baby Barn Owls. Unfortunately they had contracted severe enteritis and one by one they died (leaving only one). Usually they are very simple to raise, but one day of sliding around in a box covered in minced meat and a cold damp night may have begun a series of gut infections. Few who do not care for the very sick know the anguish and sense of overbearing responsibility of tending to critically ill patients. I found myself driving to Nairobi, then to Nakuru so as to pop in to help Sarah give them their injections.
A couple of years ago I helped out in doing a documentary in Zambia for Tigress Productions. I was the “expert” vulture man that on occasion was asked a few questions on camera. But my main forte was in dashing about off-screen helping putting in cameras and such. It was something I did as a boy when helping out my father when he did wildlife films. I was asked to help out again for an upcoming documentary on the rains and how it resuscitates a dying eco-system in drought. I shall be off overland in a car next week. That required that I release what I could and this includes a very neat and exceptionally well behaved male Black Sparrowhawk, one of three rescued nestlings whose nest tree was felled. It is often the case that I must release star performers and birds on which I have spent so much time and I confess this time I felt as though I was losing an important asset as well as a companion.

Fidget, now released

Fidget, now released

With what I hope to earn I shall plough it all into building a raptor centre at Soysambu. It’ll be an extension of Sarah’s Little Owl Sanctuary that focuses on the free flying and release of raptors that were first treated at her centre in Naivasha. Naivasha is now built up with a huge human population making little but the immediate shoreline a suitable place for wildlife. Now that the lake has risen that strip of land has submerged and it is not possible to exercise most of the raptors, which in less than a few seconds can be on adjacent properties. Both Sarah and I have realised that the birds and our objectives will outlive us (some live longer than elephants and many are much rarer!) and there must be a long term plan. The last decade has seen the absolute minimum of financial support for wildlife conservation. Formerly it was not that impossible to scratch along getting the odd donation or grant, but today that is not the case. Perhaps if we formed a long term plan with a trust and a board we would get surety asked for by some funders. It had to come one day.
The plan is to meet the demand. Sarah has an ideal location and already existent farm buildings that could be turned into huge captive breeding facilities worthy of condors. There are offices and rooms perfectly suited to state of the art veterinary facilities that could revolutionise veterinary care of raptors and the study of their diseases. All it needs is a little imagination and support.
For my part I do terribly miss my former bush life and must return. My move to Soysambu took a few stages. First was gaining familiarity with the land through Juliet Barnes and Kat Combes. I was only partly familiar with it previously and very anxious to know more. Birds of prey and especially the migrants tend to gravitate towards the Rift Valley lakes. Soysambu Conservancy fringes ¾ of the lake and is alone in the entire Rift (from Israel to Mozambique) in being mostly under private ownership.

The Raptor Camp forest glade, Soysambu Conservancy

The Raptor Camp forest glade, Soysambu Conservancy

The other lakes are either public land, multiple privately owned or protected making it difficult if not impossible to conduct research or conservation management. Here I was free to wander about, climb trees and cliffs and learn. Such accessibility allows flexibility and frees one from the enormously inhibiting, though well meant, restrictions imposed by our national parks and reserves.
As predicted the lake shore is visited every year by over-wintering raptors such as Lesser and Greater Spotted Eagles, 3 species of Harriers, 6 species of small migrant falcons, two species of large falcons (the Saker and the Russian Peregrine), and virtually all the others. Here too is a curious cross over point between species found in West and North Africa converge to meet their eastern counterparts. The Grey Kestrel and the Fox Kestrel as well as the rare Mountain kestrel occur there and in adjacent Lake Nakuru. It is also rich in vultures which are today uncommon in much of Kenya. It remains to be seen what else is there, and that will be recorded in time. Perhaps I can invite the various interested NGOs whose focus is on the research and conservation of migrant raptors and help set up a field base for their long term studies. Such a programme is vitally important and although widely understood as such the very protection that shrouds nationally protected lands works to oppose and profit from it and effectively turns such concepts away. To financially profit from critically needed research is to actively discourage it and we should consider the reverse…paying people to come and research and thus conserve. It was what I used to do in the days when I had financial backing and I have every intention of making sure it happens again.
I have chosen a little glade in the forests, some 7km away from the lake shore. In a quiet moment one would imagine wood nymphs among the myriad butterflies and birds that inhabit this odd forest patch. But the permanent residence of some 70 buffalo and a nightly visitation by the leopard bring one back to a good reality. I have every intention of integrating the structures with the surroundings and its animals. The rule is that no-one should see it when overhead or within 50m of it and that no tree or animal is displaced. I just have to befriend the leopard, who a few weeks back sat within 15m watching me cook my dinner on a camp fire. Some 400m to the east is a hill overlooking lakes and distant mountains and a small patch of the Mau Forest on Eburru. Here I aim to once again fly and release eagles, hawks, falcons, buzzards and owls and to regain the ability to focus others on specific areas of concern that I feel needed. I will for the first time have to consider donation paying guests or visitors so as to keep the objectives alive and self-sustainable. In the past I used to pay for visitors to come and get exposure, but now that must change.

My neighbourly Leopard

My neighbourly Leopard

When I return from Zambia I will have a busy end to this year.

Rehabilitating a Tawny Eagle

Rehabilitating a Tawny Eagle

A young Tawny Eagle was rescued from a man trying to sell her on the road side. She was kept in a cage by a caring owner and well looked after, but ruined her primary feathers. Her pen had wire mesh of a harmful type and self destruction was sure to follow. We had corresponded by email but well before he had to leave the country he had decided the best thing was to hand it on to Sarah Higgins.

 Unlike most birds who have gone through so much she was always a happy eagle, without too many faults largely because her first owner took an effort to “man” her. Without being kept on the glove and trained she would almost certainly have been a physical and mental wreck. Certainly those cage walls would have finished off a wild and terrified bird and she’d be unmanageable now.

Sarah built her a sensible shed, with partly enclosed walls with soft (shade netting) windows. I would occasionally drop by to see Rosy and Girl and of course I was immediately enamoured by the new Tawny Eagle. I think her name was originally something like Thunder or similar. Such names make my toes curl and I much prefer names that sum up the less dramatic side of an animal. She was called DuDu, (after an insect) then Boo Boo after all the bungled landings and take offs on her severely clipped wings.

Note clipped wings

Note clipped wings

Boo Boo was flying free in a matter of days. She is a pig for food and all one had to do is show her some and she’d run, hop and fly for it. The noble “art” of falconry is a load of bunkum in actuality and it is as simple as asking a dog to come back and a lot easier than asking a cat or horse to do so. It staggers me still why people make such a fuss about the difficulty and either herald it as a fine thing or damn it because it is so cruel. I find it best just to let raptors fly around and exercise themselves and leave the arguments to those that have the time. As much as Boo Boo would try she would fail to catch anything and often land exhausted before she got to her destination. Many an Egyptian Goose she strove to catch, but would land short.

Falconers “imp” broken feathers. Again this is mystified by some, when all it is, is gluing a replacement feather together to the old broken one to make one good feather. I got some old feathers from a Fish Eagle and imped a few. But she needed the whole lot replaced. Imping them all is possible, but the wings need constant maintenance. If she had flown away she would be in danger. It was best to let her moult on her own. 

Note Fine wings!

Note Fine wings!

It has taken her from Oct 2010 to July 2011 to moult out all her flight feathers. Compare the two photos. Prior to a moult release would have been fatal. It just goes to confirm the danger of cage management and it sadness me that this is still the “approved” method here in Kenya.

When I moved into ‘my pad’ in late May I was despite some absence, able to devote much time to flying her. Boo Boo has excelled herself in catching full grown zebra and wildebeest in front of astonished friends and students. The repeated humiliation of being tossed and thrown to the ground like a bug did not deter her.  Trying to set a new world record is obviously her goal, but wisdom has dawned in her small brain finally and she now tries for more reasonable sized prey.

Soy Sambu Hills

Soy Sambu Hills

On July 2011 she was taken to Soy Sambu Wildife Conservancy, there to meet her future minders, Juliet Barnes and Kat Combes. Jolia Hill lies in the middle of a plain, yet again surrounded by other small hills. Thousands of animals now live on rehabilitated land, once a livestock paddock and fields. Instead of the usual wild habitat removal, it is wild habitat encouragement. Still heady from receiving World Heritage Status for protecting Lake Elementeita the outlook is positive.  All were anxious to be there at the precise moment when Boo Boo was released, little realising the event would be somewhat dampened by the fact that I would call her back immediately. We did all have a good time watching her getting used to her surroundings. I think she was a hit.

Release is NEVER an instant severing of ties. The “rush into the bush and hurl” technique so often the officially approved method, is instead replaced by a smooth transition from captivity to freedom. Already a confident flyer with some stamina Boo Boo still has to find a territory, compete with her neighbouring eagles, and find out what foods are available and how to get it.

Boo Boo chased Jackal, stole food from others, stole food from an Augur Buzzard and got chased out of town off “her” hill. Not that it upset her at all! I had to tramp over hill and dale looking for her for two days. The radio transmitter mounted on her tail, a refurbished memory from some distant project squawked its last breath by giving me misleading directions. Because Boo Boo was so mobile and out of control, I knew I would lose her quickly. So I called her back and returned her to Naivasha with it in mind to return with a better transmitter. With luck there will be a series of adventures relating to Boo Boo’s release to follow!

Beneficial Birds of Prey and their Effect on Prey

When I first started working in raptor conservation for the Peregrine Fund in early 1990s, my then boss Dr. Rick Watson and I discussed the various merits of raptors. How would we best promote them? They are persecuted widely in Kenya and are not viewed as beneficial. There is very little in the way of appreciation of raptors that actually helps their protection in rural Kenya despite their images being displayed on the back of passenger minibuses (Matatus), on banks, or in the media. There is some to be sure, but I have a feeling that there is less than there was. What raptors there are in human habitats are there mostly because they have evaded persecution. Some have prospered in these altered landscapes, but most have declined or become locally extinct.

Raptors do play a role in curbing plagues of rodents, small seed eating birds, hyrax, monkeys, pigeons and such like. By explaining to an audience the amount eaten (possibly amounting to thousands of tons per year in farming lands of Kenya) it is easy to show a beneficial aspect. Take the raptors away and these prey species will continue to live, multiply and consume more human food. There is the famous example from some unclear study area in South Africa, where the sheep farmers shot out the Verreaux’s Eagle, who undoubtedly took a few live lambs. Within a few years the hyrax swarmed off the Kopjes and out into the sheep pastures, and despite the heavy gun fire wrought by the sheep farmers, they accepted that they lost much of the total sheep productivity than when they had the eagles. Tolerant farmers had eagles, a few wary hyrax, and lots of sheep.

I never really understood that. Predators have been proved in many studies to have minimal effect on the numerical density of their prey species. Disease and starvation are the leading causes of mortality in all species. A few predators thrown into the mix makes not one whit of deference to healthy populations. There is no way a swarming mass of millions of Red Billed Quelea, or a heaving mountainside of plague rodents in the highlands of Ethiopia are going to be affected in the least by birds of prey. Not if you count the amounts eaten per individual raptor and total it up. Impressive as it may be, raptors do not exert that sort of pressure. This argument has been used against those wishing to persecute raptors on Game Bird shooting areas. Grouse are killed by Peregrines, Harriers and Golden Eagles. It is their natural prey. Some game keepers still persist in persecuting raptors so as to increase the amount of grouse. In reality there is no difference between those areas with hawks and those without. The main issue for grouse numbers is food and shelter.

One thing I noticed when on a wheat farm was that a single roving falcon or harrier sets up huge spirals of panicked birds ahead of it. As the hawk moved around conserving energy and looking for easy pickings, the prey burned up so much energy and were highly stressed.

Drawing of Harrier scaring doves on farmland

The hawk was a “scare crow,” and it kept the birds from eating. Ultimately must mean less small birds. I should imagine the fat and unfearing hyraxes of South African sheep farms waddling kilometers from cover were sent into a panic when they finally did spot a Verreaux’s Eagle. One Verreaux’s Eagle would not eat that many hyrax, but it sure as heck would change their habits.

In a landscape without raptors prey species may not fear stepping out unprotected into the open. It is this fear, more than the actual mortality of prey that I am sure plays and enormous evolutionary role. It is an understudied aspect of predation.

Success in Tsavo

Despite having got a few photographs of raptors in Tsavo West over the first three days we were there, it was rather disappointing. We saw very little in the way of vultures or any other raptor for that matter. We didn’t even see any of the lions or elephants that Tsavo is famous for. The only thing that did not disappoint was our place of stay with friends at Finch Hatton’s which is as beautiful and friendly as ever. In the wood by Finch Hatton is where we saw four species of hawk and heard a fifth.

We left Tsavo feeling a little glum and spent three days at the coast on a Southern Banded Snake Eagle mission. We saw two fleeting glimpses of the bird as it disappeared into thick forest so perhaps we will need to return next year for photos.

We drove back through Tsavo East National Park and were amazed at the contrast between what we got in three days before going to the coast and what we got in three hours in Tsavo East. Before sunset on that first day back, we saw three Wahlberg’s Eagle nests, a Martial Eagle nest, Fish Eagles, African Hawk Eagles displaying and lots of Bateleur Eagles. The red elephants of Tsavo also made several appearances.

Young Wahlberg’s Eagle on nest

African Hawk Eagle

We spent one night in Tsavo East before moving back to Tsavo West where we hoped to finally get the migrants we had been waiting for. Back in Tsavo West, we had a completely different experience from the previous time. We went briefly to Ngulia Lodge to talk to Colin Jackson, Graeme Backhurst and David Pearson, who were mist-netting thousands of migrants. It was certainly the premier destination for migrants and their human followers.

We also saw many more raptors and mammals this time around. It rained for our whole second night and continued to do so as we set off in the morning. Not too far down the road, we saw a couple of cars stopped and all the passengers standing on the road. We slowed down and asked if everything was alright and they responded that they were just looking at a Sooty Falcon. We jumped to attention – the Sooty Falcon is one of our much needed species to photograph. The observers of the falcon were none other than migrant-seeking birders Fleur Ngweno, Brian Finch, Gordon Boy and others! The rain had brought in the migrants and the premier birders.

We exchanged phone numbers with the birders and promised to be in touch if we saw anything exciting. We didn’t drive too long before we saw another falcon, accompanied by seven others: Amur Falcons! We watched as they sped through the air with full crops, catching termites in the rain. It was good to see but frustratingly rainy and dark so photographing them was tough. A little further on, we saw a few more and stopped. We watched as a swarm of over 200 Amur Falcons flew over us. We let the birders know what was going on and they turned up and were excited to see so many migratory falcons in one go.

Female Amur Falcon

We camped near Finch Hatton’s that night and on our way to our campsite, we found a vulture roost. Simon had been worried that a large roost he used to know from a different location might have been wiped out by poisoning but we counted over 80 individuals at this new site so concluded that the roost must have moved.

We went back to the forest by Finch Hatton’s first thing in the morning. We saw rare Ovampo Sparrowhawks swapping food in the air, Cuckoo hawks building a nest, an African Goshawk, a Fish Eagle and a Harrier Hawk and heard the Little Sparrow-Hawk calling, all in a little patch of Yellow Fever forest by the lodge. It was a great photo opportunity.

Ovampo Sparrowhawk with prey

Cuckoo Hawk

This first 11-day trip ended up being immensely successful, but it also highlighted some of the difficulties we will have throughout this expedition. If we had made conclusions after we spent our first three days there, we might have said that raptors in Tsavo are not doing very well. But spending those extra four days there on return from the coast proved otherwise. It is going to take a lot of time, patience and collaboration with other people to get an idea of what is happening over the whole of Africa.

An odd looking Eagle

On the morning of the 18th September I was on the computer for hours and was very relieved to get a phone call from Robin Stanley near Salaama. He had what he thought was a young African Hawk Eagle, caught in a water trough near-dead from drowning.
I put the phone down and was in the car gunning down the Mombasa Road in minutes. At times like these I am like a kid on Christmas morning. What can it be, is it going to be OK, will it fly again, can it be released, should it be flown first???

An hour later it dawned on me that whatever it was I could not afford the time to lavish on it as I once did. Just last week Martin Wheeler, who took my Verreaux’s Eagle, phoned to say he had an injured Martial Eagle. I had to control my urge to race off to go rescue it. The raptor rehab side of life has had to be put on hold. But there was no denying the feeling of euphoria at something new and something that might need help as I neared the Stanley’s farm.

David and Jane Stanley own a beautiful small ranch near the edge of the Kapiti Plains, as it slopes into the Tsavo nyika type woodland. Suddenly the habitat changes from (only a few years ago) open endless wildlife-filled black cotton grassland, to the broadleaf woodland on red ochre soils. The temperature and humidity goes up. It looks and feels like Tsavo to a highlander like me, but it is the epitome of formerly common landscapes of the Machakos hills.

This ranch is increasingly surrounded by dense shambas, and will soon be the sole remnant of the region’s ingenious fauna and flora. All the surrounding large co-op ranches that were intact examples of native wild plants and animals were recently sub-divided due to shareholder demands, tough livestock business and a land-saving wildlife industry left to flounder.

When I stopped the car, a large pack of grinning dogs came up to the car followed by Jane as she pushed them aside. I was warmly welcomed by them all and ushered quickly up behind the old family homestead to a small shed, in which was an eagle. I am hopeless in such situations and must appear rude to my hosts as I have to quench my curiosity immediately. On looking in I was suddenly perplexed. I am usually pretty confident at raptor identification, but this was a small eagle with a white head, neck and shoulders. The throat was streaked white and tan. Then the white bled out into a uniform brown. I looked at the nostril, was it round or oblong? Was the legs long and thin? Did the mouth go beyond the eye? It wasn’t an African Hawk Eagle (my heart took a downward plunge but recovered itself rapidly because this was even more interesting).


I took it out and held it gently in my hands, being careful not to stress it unnecessarily as Robin and David took pictures. In the picture you can see that I am still grinning stupidly, partly from relief that it was going to be ok!


After a good few minutes I concluded it was a first year just moulting male Tawny Eagle. No big deal. Still fairly common species (although rapidly declining in Kenya). But it has unique features that need to be recorded. I have seen totally white topped Tawnies before, but on close inspection saw that it was all due to UV bleaching. I have never seen a white topped chick in the nest. I concluded long ago that all Tawnies are born rufous tawny, and get paler according to UV sunlight exposure, soil type and even chemical bleaching (such as in soda lakes). The mixtures of plumages in Tawny Eagles is incredible, and one of the main reasons why there are so many erroneous records of much rarer species. In the picture with the three juvenile Tawnies you can see just how different looking they can be! No wonder we get some whacky records.


The head photo of this particular bird shows a patterning that is unusual. The white on the head has fine black central shafts. I find it difficult to believe that it was born the usual tawny brown, then paled over time to reach this colouration. He is tiny too, no bigger than a large female Wahlberg’s Eagle. There is a pale morph of the Lesser Spotted Eagle, but they have long stove pipe legs, puny feet and rounded nostrils in a kite-like face.
He is certainly a Tawny Eagle, but it does bring to light the poor extent of our knowledge on even common species of raptors in East Africa. Had one been force to open a guide book, one would not have seen the vast array of differing Tawny Eagle morphs. Every eagle to my knowledge, bar a few such as the very mono-morphic Verreaux’s Eagle and Martial Eagle have odd morphs. Even the African Hawk Eagle juvenile has a pale morph in this part of Africa as yet un-described in literature. In most cases it is therefore best to assume that if one thinks one has seen a rare eagle, such as either the Lesser or Greater Spotted Eagle, or Eastern Imperial Eagle, to conclude that it is more likely to be a “rare” morph of a common species.

I took the Tawny Eagle home after a great lunch served on their verandah surrounded by a huge flock of wild Guineafowl. The view remains beautiful with distant mountains striding down towards the coast far to the east. The talk was one so typical of those deeply and more importantly personally involved in day to day wildlife issues and their conservation. David is the long standing chairman of the Machakos and Makueni Rancher Owners Association and the Machakos Wildlife Forum. He and Jane spoke of the need to make wildlife pay, otherwise it will go. This had been the main theme of the forum and it demonstrably worked well. When all rights were removed and no reward was possible for landowners the sale of plots was inevitable. The bush meat trade that blossomed as a result is totally out of control today. Short sighted and yet well intentioned “Band aid” solutions to problems typifies wildlife conservation policy in Kenya.

Such people who have vast practical experience must be heard and respected irrespective of the fact that what they say may not sound at first as pleasant solutions. As I drove back home, I still saw a beautiful land with so much potential for wildlife conservation that would benefit the people who “own” it. This part of Kenya is too valuable to loose.

I took the Tawny out of his box and put him in a large shed. I then retired to look at him from a distance. All his bravado left him. His shoulders sank and his head drooped, till he closed his eyes. He needs a lot of good food and at least a few days to gather his strength. But he will be fine, and I will soon release him.

Rosy’s operation (Part II)



After the excitement died down, and my stage fright had gone I looked around me at a room filled with 17 people. I had dreaded this day for nearly a year, and certainly the last 6 months my worries had got to the point that I was sure I would pass out at this crucial moment. As it approached the emails got more technical until it finally had to be my call. I opted for the soonest possible date, the smallest possible surgery, and whatever equipment we could muster. A course of action agreed by all. There was pressure. In that quiet moment I could see that every face was focused on Rosy. There were familiar faces. I was glad that Paula was there, she had known Rosy when she was a teenager too. A lot of people knew of Rosy but hadn’t seen him in the flesh. Rosy was and remains a small legend as far as raptors go in Africa. There were people here from all backgrounds and disciplines, and all working to save his sight.

I admit I felt ashamed. For the last few years I may have become less patriotic to my country of birth. I saw so few that truly cared for the wildlife and environment, and see ugly businessmen bulldozing pristine invaluable land for personal profit. They seem bent on taking it all. I came dangerously close to accepting it. This ill feeling conspired with a tangible lack of interest in my own raptor work that commenced a few years ago. This last year my own morale has improved but right then I knew I was surrounded by fellow Kenyans who cared greatly. I felt proud and I am not going to give up on Kenya. In fact I am fairly sure that it would have been very difficult to have got this many people together anywhere in the world………just for an animal.



One lens was irrigated out, and this took some time. The acrylic lens was put it. Dan thought the lens went in very well. The other eye was done more quickly with the use of the Phaco. This needle tip has ultra sound that emulsifies the tissue. The soft material is sucked into the needle. This worked fast. I was able to see the lens being slipped into place and settled in its capsule. What surprised me was the lack of sutures. The whole operation takes place through so small a hole that on pulling the needle out the eye maintains its shape. There is no leakage.


3 hours later and the operation was over. The look of relief on Barry and Nonee’s face showed just how tense the anesthesia part of it had been. We retired to a social tea and cakes arranged by Bernice on their verandah and lawn to talk it all over. People were elated, it had gone exceptionally well. I held Rosy in my arms keeping his head up.



He was very groggy. He was handed around for photographs to nearly everybody. People were that happy.


People left and I was shown my room in which we put a dog box and Rosy’s sole possession, his blue carpet. In this he was lain. Before dinner Barry went over every detail and re-enforced the need for this to be properly written up. It was ground breaking stuff. Yes it had been done before but the literature could certainly have space for this. Besides we had many specialists overseas who had been consulted, and it did make sense to publish a paper of some sort. It was a first for Africa.

I phoned Laila to tell her the news. She said that a lot of people were asking if he was OK. Laila was relieved and said that she would pass on the message as soon as possible.

I slept well that night. Too well. Barry woke me up at 3AM and we checked him again and put eye drops in.

The next morning Dan and Nonee came over to check on him. The eye pressure seemed too high and it is necessary to put special eye drops in frequently throughout the day and night.

I will write again tomorrow to let you all know how Rosy is doing now that he is back at home.

Cataract operation on Rosy the crowned eagle is a success!

Saturday the 7th Sept 2008 began early. It was difficult to sleep so I awoke before sunrise watching Tim the Lanner at the other end of the room do his morning preening session. Because the operation was to begin at 1pm, I thought it best to pack the car and leave for Nairobi at around 10AM. Rosy was taken out of his night shed and placed in the early sunlight. He is now accustomed to this and sat happily on his perch until Girl, his mate calls from the nearby shed. He calls back. I stared at him from the verandah and had second thoughts. “What if he died? “What if it was a failure and he would never see?” Today could be the end of an era, or a beginning of a new one.


Photo Paula Kahumbu

I packed the car with his only belongings, a thick carpet, and walked out the back to pick him up with the thick triple leather glove. My heart was very down. I could not bare the thought of losing him, yet it had to be done. As he stepped onto the glove, he became angry at the untimely disturbance and crushed my hand beneath. Then searing pain hit me in the index finger as he punctured all three layers of leather, skin, flesh and tendon to be stopped by bone….my bone. I let out a howl, cursed him badly and marched him off to the car uttering bitter things. Thank goodness he did that as the moment was far too heartbreaking. Good old Rosy, as formidable as ever!


Photo Paula Kahumbu

We arrived at Dr Barry Cockar’s Veterinary clinic after getting lost in Nairobi at about 11.45 AM, making record speed. Barry and Bernice his wife was there and insisted that I stay the night with them rather than drive back possibly late that night with a very sick eagle.

Dr Dan Gradin took us through the various stages of the surgery. The incision would be made almost at the part were the iris joins the cornea, and angled up to create a long tunnel. Then either a needle with a saline drip would be put in this hole, or a Phaco. Both techniques wash and suck out the damaged lens, after first puncturing the thick coated jacket in which it is housed. This capsule must be cut in the anterior part, but not the posterior…which remains intact. The lens maybe soft and easily removed or hard and difficult to remove. There was no way of knowing until you get there. The access is straightforward. The instrument goes in at the side then it is plunged down the pupil onto the lens which lies just behind. It is then ploughed out in shallow grooves. After removing this he would have to decide whether or not to put the lenses in. In other words the decision was to be made at the operating table.

Dr Nonee Magre came with the donated supplies from Ingeborg Fromberg of Acrivet, which included a CD of how to roll and house the lens in a special syringe-type applicator. Kaneto Mineto and Mr.Shiojiri Kichitaro of the Japan Wildlife Centre Kenya, who had earlier donated some $800 to this operation came, followed by Dr Paula Kahumbu of Wildlife Direct and Peter Greste who was to take documentary video of the proceedings. Dr Daniel Mundia and nurses Rose Louisa and Jane Huria of the PCEA Kikuyu Hospital Eye Unit. The small surgery was bulging with people.



A little latter than planned, Rosy finally had the first anesthetic dose. This is hair-raising. For some reason patients like to talk to their surgeons before surgery, not to their anesthesiologist, the person that keeps them a hair’s breadth away from death. This was the part I feared the most, and said as much to Peter with a camera pointed in my face.


Dr Cockar and Dr Mundia observing Dr Magre putting in the eye drops, Peter Greste filming for BBC


Checking eye pressure

Both Barry and Nonee had it well covered with each taking turns to listen to his heart and breathing. In a few minutes his wings fell to his sides, his head rolled and he was out. He was laid on the table covered in sheets and had a special sheet placed over his eye, an eye clip a bit bigger than a paper clip, prized his eyelids open and soon all there was, was an isolated eye staring out of a sheet at a surgery filled with gowned and masked surgeons. My job was to hold his head so that his eye was static, and to do so unflinchingly, despite the wound that Rosy had inflicted on my hand earlier that day. I had a great view and was fascinated from the start as Dan talked all of us through it. Nonee and Barry were itching to get a closer look and Peter went so far as to stab most of the surgeons in the back of the head with the furry microphone boom of his camera, to get the closest possible pictures. Dan is a veteran of some 10,000 surgeries all on people, and it was clear that he too was fascinated by the avian eye, so much bigger and more advanced than a human’s.

He went straight to work and it was remarkable to see the skill and confidence. At the same time all of it made good sense. The eye is like a camera and so long as you restored all the functioning bits, it would work.

(I am waiting on some photographs and will post the second part of the story soon)

Goodbye Vero’s

On Wednesday the 28th of August, Vero’s left us for a new life in northern Kenya. Toby Dunn landed on the dusty strip near my house and Mwanzia, Jonathan and I loaded Vero’s into the back in a huge box. When he took off, Jonathan and Mwanzia silently watched the plane go until it was out of sight as I drove fast beneath it. I was fighting back tears.

Vero’s is a Verreaux’s Eagle, one of Africa’s three largest eagles. She is a true eagle, belonging to the Aquila group. The Golden Eagle of USA, Eurasia and Japan, the Steppe Eagle of Russia and China, the Tawny Eagle of Africa and India, and the Wedged tail Eagle of Australia, belong to this group. They are patchily distributed from Israel and Arabia, through to Chad and down eastern Africa into South Africa. That part of Africa shattered by the Great Rift Valley produced the habitat most favoured by this specialized eagle.

They are slope soarers without comparison. Their wings look like paddles, starting at the base shallow and broadening as it reaches the last 1/3rd then it tapers off to a sharp tip. In howling winds that would force a Peregrine to perch, they hold stationary sentinel over their rocky territory.

They are Rock Hyrax specialists. But while this may be true in some of their range, it is not the case in Kenya. Cliff environs harbour an array of different animals adapted to the epiphyte growth and tough scree terrain. The hyrax is of course at home here, but so are Klipspringers, large voles, mongoose, genet cats, hares and specific game birds. Such habitats also have thicket-dwelling animals like Dik Dik, bushbuck and duiker. All these are within the prey range of a Verreaux’s Eagle.

Vero’s comes from Lukenya hill, only a few kilometers from my former house. Each weekend, the hill is visited by rock climbers who own it. Each weekend, the raptors that live there are inevitably disturbed. While the Mt Club of Kenya has many members who minimize their impact on the cliffs, there is always the potential for disturbance. There had been repeated nesting failures of Verreaux’s, Lanner Falcons and Peregrine Falcons. I am never very good with people and cannot understand the need to climb a cliff for no very good reason. There is an element of machismo in the sport that may lead to ignoring everything but the task in hand. I have seen climbers being repeatedly dive bombed by distraught Lanners defending their tiny chicks. None bothered to question why. When informed one climber said so what, they owned the hill.

A few years prior to 1995, I experimented with “Abel rescue”. I had done so with Crowned Eagle and Augur Buzzards many years previously and saw the need to include climbers and students. It would be a good way for all of us to do good and create awareness. Most eagles (and Lammergeyers) lay two eggs, 3-9 days apart. They hatch asynchronously with one being very much more robust than the other. The larger individual will almost invariably kill the younger sibling. The younger sibling has a miniscule chance and that is to kill its old sibling. Only one chick survives. Cain killed his younger brother Abel, and the act of this siblicide use to be called “Cainism”. If you take one chick away immediately at the hatch of the second chick, you can raise it in captivity, and produce twice as many as otherwise would be the case. But the hand-raised chick you kept would be a human imprint. A permanent muddle, who will first take you as its parent, and when mature will try to copulate with you. Not good. Imprints can also be very aggressive towards whoever and whatever they think is competition. This may be a person, a dog or even a particular car. They can never be released into the wild. They may be befriended by a member of their species, but they will do their best to kill and eat it. Many rehabers forget or overlook this problem, raising lions for example that are mentally unable to adapt and be released.

When it comes to Abel rescue, I developed a technique that made sense but was physically demanding. Raise the chick in captivity for 10 days, take it back to its parents, swap it with the “wild” sibling. Take the “wild” one back. Raise that for 10 days. Take that back. ETC. Do this until they are 8 weeks old when they are large and nearly ready to fledge. Put them together and although they fight, they are equal combatants.
On two occasions I had the pleasure of seeing two young Verreaux’s flying around after their parents, and this raised awareness and concern among the rock climbers. I was later able to use this technique with one of the world’s rarest raptors, the Madagascar Fish Eagle.

In 1995, I was helped by a Mt Club member and his girlfriend. But when I went to put the eaglet into the nest at 8 weeks, I found that the nest was partly collapsed, two brand new carabiners were clipped one meter above the nest platform and the chick was not there. I concluded that rock climbers had stood on the nest, and the chick fell to its death. This was not the first time.

Vero’s nest

Vero’s aged 25 days lying prone and frightened having been with her parents for ten days. Bold chick is her sibling at the moment it was taken to the nest from being in captivity for ten days. At this age they will still fight and kill each other, so Vero’s (the frightened one) was taken away.

I put the nest edge up, a tough job considering it weighed more than 200lbs, and put the large chick into it. I returned the next day to see the nest empty. Abseiling a further 75ft to the bottom, I found her, bleeding profusely from shattered wing tip. Her left pinky talon had been torn out too.

I took her home and raised her. The broken growing flight feathers are turgid with blood, and if they break, the bird can bleed to death. Although I gave her a set of new feathers (imping), it was a year before she was able to fly well.

I very seldom have eyasses (a falconry term for a chick taken from the nest), because I disapprove, and never take birds for my own enjoyment. Eyasses are bumbling babies and although very easy to manage and fly, take a long time to get hunting and are poor candidates for release. Vero’s was fortunately a borderline nutcase. She was not imprinted on humans, but only just. Over the years I flew her on hill sides where she was joined by others. She knows only too well that she is a Verreaux’s Eagle, showing an appalling flirtatious side once to an embarrassed male.

I do not live in Verreaux’s Eagle habitat now, but far out on a flat plain. Here she is limited in her repertoire of flight maneuvers. She can thermal however. This is terrifying to watch. If flown at 3.30pm, the thermals are still very active. She will sit on her perch looking upwind. A distant whirlwind or dust devil will excite her. I am sure she sees them in a different way. I understand that American red tailed hawks can see infra-red and thus see rising columns of hot air. I think she does too. Into these she flies and in one or two violent swings she is mounting the wind high up into the sky. Verreaux’s love being tossed around by violent air. Their wings snap in and out and they enjoy tumbling sideways with their legs dangling. So does Vero. On one occasion, she ended up out of sight and vanished. I drove about 90km that day and finally found her on a fence post near our then Vice Presidents’ private house on Kitengela! She is not particularly afraid of strangers and was in danger of being killed.

The years seem to have gone by very easily with Vero’s. She never was a problem. When I had volunteers here years ago it was possible to fly her at hares, using the car. She once took a young Thomson’s Gazelle, and was very nearly killed by its mother as she blind sided Vero’s at top speed with her head down. The holes were very deep and gurgled air. It had punctured her air sacs. Ever since then she has had an irrational fear of Thomson’s Gazelles, until 2006-07, when she killed two full grown females. As usual I let her fly off in the afternoon to a “T” perch some 300m from the house. She sat there as I walked out to meet her. But I noticed she was standing tall on tip toe staring at something. She took off flying low and fast. I thought it was the Ground Squirrel, a veteran escapologist. She flew on and at about 400 m I saw a female Tommie standing looking right at her. She took it head on and they went down. I ran to the spot and could see nothing. I stood still to listen. Surely there would be a commotion? Nothing. I saw her swelled with pride and stretched out before her a huge gazelle, with stiff and straight limbs. The limbs went limp, then they started to kick, and thrash wildly. It was dead, quicker than any cheetah kill. The other Tommie was taken on the run, but again it was remarkably easy. One flight she started from about 400ft high. She stooped straight into the ground about half a kilometer distant, and in a second came thundering across the grass tops diagonal to me. The speed was inconceivable. Her wings were tight to her body, and as she went past me she started to pump them quickly and close to her body. Then she swept up onto the sky vertically, looking hard between her legs, and fell back into the grass. 10 ft away a Thomson’s Gazelle jumped up and ran. When I got there she was taking her anger out on a huge rock. She had missed. But she had displayed a strategy. From high above she launched her attack, not straight at it, but hidden at low level. She had memorized the approach, flying at something unseen. She had messed up and she was furious.

She would fly to school kids and must have landed on the arm of at least a thousand. Sometimes in the crowd, there is a particular person who angered her. Usually they have that inner city rolling way of walking. Cap turned backwards,and a zip somewhere between their knees. Woe betides the one wearing an Ipod earpiece. They will be attacked. She hates tall people too. Sometimes I have to ask these people to stay behind.
I know that many people delighted in seeing her, and having her fly to them. But there is something sad about it all. She is always a faithful backup, for “the bird talk” but I grew to feel that I had let her down.

Vero’s flying to Laila

Last year, when I had to make up my mind to leave I had hoped to release her into the wild, near where I released Duchess the Crowned Eagle. But the social unrest we experienced at the end of last year and beginning of this year put an end to those plans. Vero’s by eagle standards is not old or even middle aged. She has many years ahead of her.

When the word got out that I was leaving, Martin Wheeler contacted me asking if I had any birds he could take on. His school teacher at Falcon College in Zimbabwe was an old colleague of mine. Ron Hartley tragically died a few years ago, and left a deep hole in African raptor research and conservation. Ron had said that Martin was a Kenyan falconer, and surely I knew him? I did not. Now Martin appeared at just the right moment. He works at Tassia Lodge in Il Ngwesi north of Lewa Downs on a community run sanctuary. The lodge is set in the side of a hill. Just the sort of place that would suit Vero’s.

On the 28th Aug, Martin received Vero’s. He has been kind enough to keep in touch to tell me of her progress. This morning as I made my cup of coffee by the kitchen window I subconsciously expected that Vero’s was staring back at me from her perch. Until that is, I looked up to check.

A stroke of luck! (Costa Rica comes to an end)

One evening we went out on the kayaks onto the lagoons to find crocodiles. I am true to the people of my home country, terrified of water because of crocodiles. I had one school friend get eaten, two or three near scrapes and we all had mothers that would tick us off if we dared to step into murky waters. To go out at night in a flimsy canoe to deliberately look for crocodiles goes against my better judgment. Little fish skimmed the surface of the water, and some even hopped into the kayak. Laila was busy trying to catch baby crocodiles and found a few that evaded her. One that she was about to put her hand on, suddenly snapped a fish in its jaws, literally less than an arms length away! For me, the best part was seeing large Fishing Bats repeatedly swoop into the light beam, skim the water and flash past my face. One hit the water and sent spray over my feet! I thought I saw one fly off with something in its feet. Like small fish eagles these guys hunt in very much the same style, but I cannot imagine how they can echo-locate something under the water!

We drove a number of nights down the road searching with a spotlight, looking for Jaguars, and more likely to see, an Ocelot, known to live nearby. We saw Opossums mostly, and once, during the day the mighty Tyra. It is a long tailed wolverine or honey badger, without the bent elbows. Instead it is cat-like, with longer limbs. It must be a fearsome predator. From a bridge we watched two large Otters playing and fishing in a river next to a Tiger heron. On one trip we saw the tiny Pearl Kite, a diminutive and stocky version of the Black Shouldered Kite. We saw one of these too. Laila pointed out that it did not have black shoulders, and this remains a mystery.

Pearl Kite (Photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din)

The second most wanted raptor on my list under the Harpy Eagle and even above the OBF, was the Laughing Falcon. I have old pictures of it. It looks like a true falcon, but in a stumpy wing long tail body of an accipiter. It seems like a missing link between the very odd Caracaras and true falcons like the Peregrine. I had assumed it to be small. One evening we heard a Ha Ha…Ha Ha….Ha Ha, shouted out from the forest near Terrapin. The same day Jim Tamarack turned up and said that this could be none other than the Laughing Falcon! Next morning it called again at first light, with the growling Howler Monkeys, and I got a thick ear from Laila for not having dashed off to go find it. The falcon was taking on a new meaning to my list of priorities. It was around to be sure, but it was most likely sitting deep in the forest canopy hidden most of the day. I resigned myself to never finding it especially as it never called after 5.30AM, or before nightfall.

The White Hawk is another species that Laila had seen “hanging out” with foraging monkeys. I had not seen this either. While lying in the hammock I heard an unfamiliar, but buteo-like mewing and walked out to see two White Hawks sailing around in the valley behind. I savored the moment and did not bother to race for the camera. I’d remember this without resorting to digital memory.

White Hawk (Photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din)

The holiday was coming rapidly to its close. I had to think now about the future, which was pretty grim. Back home I had left things in the balance. This holiday had given me the time I needed to make a few painful life choices. I was in this reflective mood as I was being driven to the airport for my flight out. Now the chances of seeing what remained on my wish list were nil, when Laila stopped the car and grabbed the binoculars. Ha! A Laughing Falcon! In an open field, sitting in a lonely tree sat a big headed and large falcon. I walked over to take pictures. It was that simple.

Laughing Falcon

An update on Rosy

Rosy the male Crowned Eagle with cataracts was taken out of his shed three weeks ago. The measurements taken by Dr Tony Walia and Dr Nonee Magre at the Kikuyu Eye hospital were circulated by email and we received the great news that Ingeborg Fromberg, the head of Acrivet ([email protected]) had a few suitable lenses and other vital equipment which she wished to donate to us. It only needed a suitable box number and physical address to send it to. As I live in the sticks, the chances of having a postman driving out to my house carrying a parcel were pretty slim. Dr Nonee Magre offered the Kenya Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (KSPCA) as a suitable address.

Nonee phoned me back this morning (27th Aug) saying that there had been a bit of a delay with regard to being able to do the surgery at Kikuyu Eye Hospital. Dr Walia reassured me that the matter would resolve itself in a positive way. The centenary celebration of the hospital are coming up soon, and the operation on an eagle is mostly recognized as a wonderful PR opportunity, but a few things needed to be done in order to placate a few.

Unfortunately it looks like the operation date may have to be pushed a few more weeks!! I do not have a few more weeks. Rosy, as always, seems to contrive to destroy my plans. The last few months have been tough enough making the resolve to leave, releasing birds, and giving some away. Rosy, the pillar of my life, is unquestionably my nemesis too. He is my brother. I love him. He will win, he always does. It is a typical love / hate relationship.

Girl (Photo by Dave Richards)

We are looking for another place to do the operation while we wait for the supplies to arrive. There is a more brutal approach to cataract operation involving a large incision of the cornea, and a manual extraction of the lens. Without the pin-hole type surgical equipment of today, this is how cataract surgery was done in the past. I even understood that the ancient Egyptians did something of the sort. But this would be a pity given that we do have the specialized equipment here.

Naturally, I could not help but wonder if the CITES regulations that successfully hindered his temporary export to South Africa for the operation could not at this late hour be reversed. But sadly there is no point in even trying, given that I still have not had a response from either South Africa or Kenya. Many have said it would take many months to get the permission, and the chances were slim.

I wrote a letter to my Mum the other day regarding Rosy and I deleted a cheesy comment that he was a part of my left arm. My Mum would scoff at that, as much as I do. It was not what I wanted to say. I dislike a spiritual approach regarding animals. No mystical gaze into the horizon to view my spiritual totem, and to seek their guidance etc. No there is no rainbow warrior insight, no heighten perception, for living with one eagle throughout my life.

When I went into Rosy and Girl’s shed to get him, he was a beast. Snatching and ripping at me and lifting three grown men off their feet in a single bench press of his legs. Biting and yelling at us while we put jesses back on him. I dreaded this moment for weeks and he did not disappoint us. We were pouring sweat and mid way through it I thought of my Dad, who passed away last year and how this would greatly amuse him. As a measure of his respect for Rosy, I noted in his old filing cabinet a file named “Rosy”. There was none of any other bird, animal or even of his children! He had written a script around Rosy, and a boy (me), and Rosy was one heck of a tough customer. Even now I reckon my Dad would have nothing but admiration for Rosy, as he sits outside on the lawn on his perch looking immaculate and proud. When Girl calls from her shed, Rosy calls back. The call is “This is my land”. Just as a lion’s roar. He owns with Girl a territory here and defended it for 16 years. I recorded him a few days ago and if I could figure it out I think I could share his call on this blog. Perhaps later.

What I meant to say to my Mum was that Rosy and I are back to our old relationship. I knelt down to pick him up talking to him the other day. He talked back. It is a very un-eagle like series of notes, but they portray worry, curiosity, concern, confidence and even gratitude. He cannot see a thing, not flinching even if I move my hand quickly to within an inch of his eyes. So when he steps gentle up onto the glove, he has to know it is there. He has to know it is me, for he hates others. The moment he is back on my arm he is happy. For fun I might work him into a pretend fury by growling at him and saying “Rosy is dozy and sometimes very dim!” The reaction I had from him 30 years ago has not changed one iota. Wham! He slams the glove. With evil passion he pummels the length of the glove making me wince in pain. Why I do it I do not know. But if ever I need a reminder of just how strong he is I do this (only with the 3 leather layers plus tyre reinforced glove). With his face an inch from mine he tends to bump his bill on my cheek or nose. He always did, and he does so now. We walk off, he perfectly balanced, my arm held in the same way that decades have taught us. I move, turn and place him back on his perch in a completely non-thinking manner and he like a dance partner follows my lead. You would not know he was blind. To say we are “one” is taking it far too far. But I should bet that few people have had relationships this close and this long….with anything, human or otherwise. Yes there is a sympathy, a prediction down to the finest movement of what the other thinks. It would be mad not to imagine that this is so.

Magu in the sun

In an hour I shall be putting Vero’s, the Verreaux’s Eagle on a plane flown by Tobi Dunn, to be delivered to Martin Wheeler at Tassia Lodge in Ill Ngwesi, Samburu District. I have never met Martin. I knew of him a few years ago when I met his teacher the late Ron Hartley. Ron was the leader of Zimbabwean raptor work and certainly the greatest falconer Africa ever produced. Ron said Martin was a wild one, but a good falconer. I am trusting you Ron.

Right now my heart is down and I am desperately worried that I am doing the right thing by leaving next month. But I have to remind myself that I have no choice. Life depends upon work and income. This has come to an end and what I am doing, as much as it destroys me to do it, must be done for the birds.