Category Archives: Rehabilitation

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.

Jack the Black Sarrowhawk

Jack and Jill, the Black Sparrowhawks.

It is rare these days to get an opportunity to fly a fine hawk. By “fly” I mean to have it buzz about, follow you, exercise and finally catch things on its own. In the past I used to get a number of flyable fine hawks in a year and go through rehabbing and/or flying them like a conveyer belt. I got to be blasé and flew and released so many I lost memory of all but a few. I reminisce over encounters passed somewhat like Maurice Chevalier’s song “Ah yes I remember it well”.  It is all a pleasant blur. I must presume that the low volume today is reflected not so much by a decreasing number of wild raptors but by other factors, not the least being the increased difficulty the public (and rehabbers) now have in being allowed to rescue raptors.

By a ‘fine’ hawk I mean the athletes of the raptor world. The accipiters and large falcons are the chief examples. They are monstrously strong, have an enormous metabolic rate and vast physical demands upon them. They are the “heavily wing-loaded” raptors…the guild of elite that need careful management prior to release otherwise they will die.

Fortunately these birds are almost domestic in the sense that methods used in handling them are as old as those used with the training or herding of domesticated animals. If you know what to do, such a bird slides seamlessly onto your arm and will within a couple of weeks be flying about and returning to you, tweaking your ear and fluffing up on one foot happy at the end of the day with a bulging crop filled with something it caught. Instead of having confined it for a few millennia to your cave, home, enclosure, stables or paddocks; and selected genes that scrubbed all semblance of pride and independence, hawks and falcons are already biddable and potentially good buddies. There’s no need to go through thousands of years of domestication, they get on with it from day one (well, maybe by day 7 if you give them some TLC). You leave them in a cage and they are destroyed.

 

This is falconry, a method of wildlife animal husbandry so ancient and ingrained in raptor management that I feel it should be a legal obligation for anyone handling these birds. I would go as far to add that any rehabber who has not trained and successfully hunted with a single hawk, should under no circumstances attempt to rehabilitate one. I know it opens a can of worms among animal rights groups, and because of this I have kept some of what I do quite. The end result has not been good, for many raptors are released in Kenya (and elsewhere such as India) today with no hope of them being able to catch food. I do not propose each and every raptor needs to be falconry trained prior to release, but I do support that the athlete species should and that most would benefit from it.

After cautiously recognising a new and favourable view on falconry after its UNESCO recognition in Nairobi I felt sufficiently bold enough to once again step out of the closet and train and hunt this new and fearless little sub adult male Black Sparrowhawk, dubbed Jack, after Jack Sparrow. I could have let him go, for there was nothing wrong with him, he was fit and had nearly a year of hunting experience behind him. I actually hoped to show-case his “falconry” management to prominent people, and to use him to get a few messages across. Then release him.

Jack was about a year old, rapidly changing his plumage and thus had no wife and family. Jill was to come later, she was a just fledged female with no hunting experience, picked up by an old friend Craig Sorely and trained. The two birds were very different despite being the same species.

Jack was extremely flighty and bated all the time. Throughout the time I had with him he never returned to his bow perch, nor stayed on it after I put him back. He drove me crazy. I had to keep him on a high screen perch or on my fist, sometimes for 6 hrs of the day. The first day he fed on the glove, the third day he stepped onto the glove, the 5th day he flew to the glove and by 2 weeks he was flying free and chasing birds. Unusually for his species he took to the hood well, which was a great relief as that meant I could have some respite from his constant high fever-pitch behaviour. This hyper-activity was typical of “passage” or “haggard” males. I put his tail in a sheath to stop it from getting damaged. Each day I weighed him twice to the last 1 gram. My goodness to see him all decked out with, jesses, bewits, tail bell, radio transmitter, swivel, leash, 3 different perches, 2 gloves, weighing scales, his night shed and a few fancy hoods even impressed me. To some this image is painful and indicative of dominion, whereas to see him “free” in a large and airy shed would seem to them much more humane. Nothing could be further from the truth as I will relate.

 

Jack, hooded on screen perch and full of food

 

The weather was blistering hot and by mid afternoon I had to spray him with water, which he greatly appreciated. If I missed this, he could well have died of heat stress. I realised with not-so-fond a memory what hard work it was to keep a falconry bird and to keep them in tip-top condition. I was glad that Craig was busy with his female, because 2 Sparrowhawks would be too much.  I had to fly him every day but in view of the limited ability for me to hunt him at wild prey I made a point to exercise him extremely hard and increase his fitness. I used an old trick in putting weights on his legs (bags filled with ball bearings) and getting him to fly high up onto my fist held above my head. This was tough work, but maintained muscle and stamina (for us both!). Anything less and he would not be able to hunt. Such attention occupies a falconer’s mind but seldom seems that important to the pure rehabber, who may blissfully think “the wild” is a peaceful benign place full of food and that a skinny weakling will do just fine. It isn’t, and food (doves mostly for Jack’s species and sex) are damned hard prey to fly down! When finally the clouds broke and it rained, it did so without respite for weeks. But I was able to fly him at Coqui Francolin, Crowned Plovers, Collared Dove and Dikkops (Stone Curlew) and one wet weekend was perhaps the highlight of my entire year despite the mud.

Jack looking keen to go flying

To attempt to tell a person unfamiliar with raptors just how fast a Sparrowhawk can go when in earnest after prey and very fit is impossible. None can understand the impression of speed and agility because it defies imagination.  But image those old movies with an astronaut strapped to a rocket sledge on a railway line. Remember those G forces and the extreme exponential acceleration? Well a hawk’s flight is nothing like it because Jack keeps his composure and his jowls do not flap in the wind. But otherwise the speed seems similar.

On this muddy weekend I took Jack, hooded on my glove for a drive (one handed through knee deep mud). I saw a group of Coqui Francolins and stopped the car and got out and removed his hood. He sat there looking blank and a bit stupid, until he too saw the francolins trotting to cover some 100m away through the yellow fever woodland. This is usually too far for most hawks to stand any chance. His face changed and he lent forward with deadly intent. I stepped forward, anxious lest I messed up. Just as they turned behind a tussock, he snapped off the fist and rowed out with every wing beat gaining him momentum. The francolins were airborne and going flat out, with one (the cock) that rose higher than the rest. Jack picked him out and like an arrow closed at incalculable speed towards him. I was able to see the whole flight as in curved an arc. Other hawks would have long dropped out when the male francolin dropped a gear and blazed for cover. But not Jack. As with every hunt I see, be it a cheetah after a gazelle, or a falcon after a bird my mind was torn between edging the prey on to escape, or edging the predator on for the capture. But on this occasion things were suddenly concluded leaving no time for mixed emotions of any kind. He left only a few feathers floating on the wind. Plodding as fast as I could breathless through the quagmire listening for the sound of his tiny bell, I heard instead a huge and ugly snort behind and to my right. It was two buffalo and I laughed because as stupid as I might have first appeared, I always run through thick bush towards climbable trees through force of habit. That evening by candle light I toasted Jack to the applause of thundering rain on the tin roof. I thanked him for a day too rarely had in this modern Kenya where getting dirty and practical with wildlife is looked upon as unnecessary, distasteful and too “dangerous”.

Jack on prey

I flew Jack at prey for just over a week and achieved the highest possible standard of falconry with him taking 4 Coqui francolin, and one Spotted Dikkop and one Red eyed dove in the air. I fed him and other hawks on these kills. He almost certainly had killed less than he would have done if wild and free, but to me that was an exceptional score. He was not infallible and did bungle a few times. But he was one of the best hawks I have ever seen. It was significant to note that when he did fail it was after a day or less of inactivity. I was so pleased to be able to get back into what, many years ago, was a way of life that taught me more than any scholastic endeavour ever did about wildlife and raptors.

Unfortunately I had to go to a Vulture conference in the Mara and wrecked my car engine on that horrendous road. I had to “ground” Jack for a week, but did so by placing him in a custom-made “padded cell”. I tested him out in the spacious shed with shade-net darkened walls, a tree and a nice bath and he seemed happy. I returned wheel-less and broke and much later than planned and was appalled to see the Jack had damaged his cere and had broken 2 tail feathers during the time I was away. I took him up, repaired his tail and dressed his nose wound, angered with myself at having caused damage, rather than cured it.

I flew him hard and made him carry weights again until he was back to prime fitness. At first he was puffed and weak. I cut his jesses over a week later and left him to finish a meal and fly to the top of a yellow fever tree to clean his bill. He was only a few weeks ago as wild as a hawk could ever be, and now again he was just as wild and fit. He never was “tame” by any stretch of the imagination. Although that is the way I like most of my birds, I did single him out to be the ambassador for regulating of falconry (and rehab) and wanted him to show off his skills in front of VIPs. More to the point anyone of these people witnessing a hunt, would all acknowledge within a heart-beat, the futility of cage managed rehabilitation. But I soon knew he was not going to tolerate company and while that spoiled my plans I bore him no grudge; rather I admired him all the more.  I saw him the next few days, chasing shore birds around the lake. I can’t get near enough to him to feed him and he doesn’t need it either. I am not worried about his fitness or ability to survive because he proved his mettle in an out of captivity. Should I worry about his tameness? Hardly, for I just spoke today at length to what I thought was Jack in a tree high above me, pleased at the faint recognition he showed me by quizzically turning his head upside-down. Last week he would have just raced off ignoring me. What had brought about this new boldness I thought as I raised my binoculars? What I saw was not Jack, but a strange adult (wild) male of whose acquaintance I had never previously made.

This story does have an important message in re-affirming the need for assessing a raptors’ ability to hunt prior to release. For the “athletic” species, those that habitually hunt birds and or active strong prey as large or larger than themselves, it is imperative to have them at peak fitness and with the will and way-with-all to catch their prey. Just a day down and their success rate plummets. More inactivity than that, such as the usual and locally much endorsed small open-sided cage and containment for weeks or even months with barely a few meters to hop…will result in a dead hawk after release. I have incessantly opposed cage management for some groups of raptors. It humiliates me that I erred and placed such a hawk in a shed (infinitely better suited than the usual kind) for whatever the reason. A momentary lapse on my part led to Jack getting injuries incurred while in captivity. He’ll survive the injuries, but had he spent a few days longer in incarceration or had we not taken pains to make his shed quite and “padded”, he could easily have had permanent life-threatening injuries. Short of having football stadium sized totally enclosed pens, physical fitness of these birds is tough to achieve without hard work.

The only way to achieve guaranteed successful results and no injuries at all with this group of birds is falconry management. With falconry only management Jack was perfect in feather flawless and a proven hunter. With “normal” rehab management, he was a near wrecked bird.

The story of Jill will follow. But suffice it to say she flies great, goes for kilometres each day free…but has no idea that she has to catch things to survive.

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!

Rosy and Girl part 2.

Rosy and Girl part 2.

Before finishing on Rosy and Girl’s breeding attempt I am happy to see that they still have followers of the blog! I apologise to them all for failing to keep up a routine. Truth is that exciting and positive things to report have been few and mundane entries are strictly prohibited in my book. However we are recognising a need to keep with it so as to raise awareness, and at some point try to expand and get raptor rehabilitation back on its feet again. Not that it is not so today, but all would admit it is low profile and coasting along awaiting official recognition and encouragement. I could get red in the face about various aspects of animal rehabilitation that are so often ignored that ultimately proves fatal. These are practised largely to conform to the myriad restrictions placed upon us.  But today there is a perceptible change back towards accepting public involvement and it is probable that we can grow and fill a sourly needed niche. There are thousands of raptors in need of care each year, but only a handful are brought in. This was not the case 20 years ago when I and others, were inundated with crippled birds. I guess one of the first things to do is to inform, and the internet (blogs) are one way of doing so.

So here goes: Rosy and Girl on eggs.

Rosy and Girl on nest

Rosy and Girl on nest

Just before February 2011 I was busy in Athi and the Mara doing other things, thinking all the while that I was more needed at Naivasha to tend to Rosy and Girl. Hatching can go wrong, and one can assist if need be, by prying miniscule pieces of egg shell away if the chick is exhausted. Easy to say as one would be having to fend off two fierce Velocaraptors with one arm. When I returned on the 2nd Feb to look in the shed, they were still on eggs. The eggs failed to hatch. We all hung on hope for a few more days until we knew nothing would happen. A great pity, for Girl seldom incubates an infertile egg. In the past she would sit on ¾ of the term and leave it without much concern. This time both she and Rosy sat determinedly and hung on well after the end.

Sarah Higgins, Mwanzia and I all felt it possible that disturbance may have contributed. It only needs a 20 minute period of absence during intense heat or cold for the eggs to die. There are fighting hippo crashing up against their shed, wandering students (not sure which is worse), and the occasional tractor. We closed up the area and crossed fingers.

In mid June they started to rebuild, in late June they were very active, in early July they were mating, in mid July things calmed down. We are having a problem feeding them the right food. I have to admit here that we feed them rabbits too seldom (dead rabbits). It is the only food that nears their diet (of monkeys, small antelope etc). To fill in the bulk is beef, and turkey heads. Neither have the nutritional value to keep them in prime health or get them breeding. Rabbits now cost as much as a goat did and contrary to popular belief they do not breed anywhere near fast enough to feed one pair of eagles. However we found some good food in mid June and hey presto, they were mating again. On 21 of July I came back from fixing my car to find them incubating! I think it is one egg, but will leave them a few days before I check.

Boo Boo the Tawny Eagle

Boo Boo the Tawny Eagle

In the next few days I will be releasing a Tawny Eagle called BooBoo. This is a bird that was found being sold on the side of the street, rescued by a pilot, part trained, rescued by another pilot and given to Sarah Higgins. I would pass by and fly it down below the house near the lake shore. Now BooBoo is ready to go. I’ll put a radio on her and have a team of volunteers at Soy Sambu Conservancy all fired up to keep a daily eye on her.

Rosy and Girl, back together.

News on Rosy and Girl:

Those of you who remember Rosy and his cataract eye operations may be curious to know how he is getting on. The truth was that for months after his operations and prolonged treatment he was a shadow of his former self, usually sitting idle in his corner half blind and unable to interact with Girl, his mate of some 25 years. He could not easily find his food or build a nest and he just spent his day loafing with glazed eyes. Every now and then he’d crash into the shed wall and our hearts would sink. I had little hope and therefore no reason to write about him when in so pathetic a state. While it has been incredible that he could see a bit and look after himself we’ve all been disappointed that it was not a miraculous total recovery. But sometimes he’d surprise us all by being seen high up on a perch looking cocky. How did he get there?

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Girl inspects Rosy's DIY skills.

 For the last year and more I usually spend 2 to 3 days in one place before heading off to another destination in my camper car. It (then) hadn’t resulted, as I had hoped, in employment or a place to live. But I think I am doing a number of worthy things and being productive nevertheless. But when I am utterly fed up with everything and in despair, I end up going to see Rosy and Girl now happily housed at Sarah Higgins’s sanctuary at Naivasha. I feel good and among family when I see them. When I visited in October 2010 Rosy and Girl, were showing distinct signs of breeding.  They would sometimes sit side by side. Rosy would try to get the food to the nest, or Girl would take a sprig of green leaves in her bill and look confused. In mid December, while asleep in my car roof top tent behind their shed I was awoken by Girl calling at night. That was always a sure sign when we were all together in Athi that she was thinking of breeding. It was a low monotone call, somewhat sad and foreboding. I went down to see them in their pen in the morning and saw Rosy at one end low down on his usual perch and Girl up in the old nest. Nothing had changed.

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Rosy and Girl on nest

By mid October 2010 I was helping Masumi Gudka to do a Fish Eagle/pesticide project. We were all staying at Sarah Higgin’s place where she also has a research facility. I heard Rosy and Girl make a “mating” call! By the time I rushed down to their shed I saw nothing other than Rosy and Girl on the nest looking innocent. But Rosy was on the nest….a rare feat for him. Over the next few weeks Mwanzia and I with the help of Sarah’s workshop fundis put together a King Sized eagle bed, built for having large and strapping eaglets. A massive iron structure some 2.2m across was set, with some danger to life and limb, on top of their old nest. Not only is the centre nest tree flimsy, but Rosy and Girl could of course drop you with one single blow. We then added a few extra poles to assist Rosy in getting to the nest. Within minutes after we departed Rosy was in there busying himself with nest renovations. By late November he was totally at home nest building and rearranging. I suspected that they had mated, but I was not sure. Still almost blind, his determination is so admirable that it just makes all of us stand back and shake our heads with wonder. He is incredibly clever at using what senses he has at doing what he was always good at. He used to be an exceptional nest builder and father who used to take on incubation, brooding and feeding chores with rare dedication. During the beginning of his current nest duty he would charge threateningly down the perch to collect fresh green branches we placed for him. He would return to the nest to place it with artistic flourish in the bowl, and I smiled a lot for no very good reason. I haven’t smiled in this paternal stupid way since they last had a chick in late 2005. Rosy and Girl look to be back in business, and with them I feel as though things never changed. It would be better than just “good” if they did breed. It would defy all that stood in the way. Much did, and I still harbour simmering anger at those that did harm and ruin so good a thing. But this great news would surely delight all those that helped by gave funds when Rosy needed two cataract operations. Those that contributed and those that did the surgery and cared for him would all finally feel it worth their while. Rosy and I owe so many people, especially Sarah Higgin’s. Above all, everyone can rest assured that the operation was no failure and Rosy and Girl are back together.

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Eagle foreplay. NB: Closed 3rd eyelid.

(At this point I had hoped to close one blog entry so as to build suspense for the next. But caution ruled and I did not post it. Part 2 of the story follows)

In January 2011 they were both busy making the nest. It was impossible now to enter without Rosy or Girl attacking. When the mating call was being made I would rush down and just miss it. Sarah too would dash to see what was happening. Only Mwanzia witnessed them mating, but something was not exactly right. When I finally did see them mate I was confused to see Girl on top of Rosy! It is a very rare thing for eagles to do. Physiologically the mechanics of the whole process just don’t work in this position.  I assumed Girl was frustrated with Rosy’s ineptitude at this tricky task. It takes a lot of caution (those feet could kill the female), and balance to mate. But every time Rosy looked near to mating (lots of nibbling and foreplay etc), Girl would back off. Rosy is smaller than Girl and I worried that this odd mating position could end in serious injury. Girl’s feet are massive. However on one occasion in late January I rushed to the peep hole to see Rosy dismounting. What happened I was unable to tell.

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The nest and eggs. The metal nest rim can just be seen.

On the 2nd Feb 2011 I came in exhausted from a long drive to look into their shed and see only Rosy. Alarmed I swung open the door and entered, only to have Girl rise like a massive demon from the nest and glower with gaping mouth and open wings. She was on an egg! Rosy stood statuesque and in solemn pose a few feet away. His demeanour may look calm and composed, but he was anything but. Had I stepped one more foot into the shed he would have flung himself at me and Girl would have certainly followed. I raced off to tell Sarah. When I returned to Naivasha a week later Girl was on two eggs!

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An egg! Girl attacked so photo poor!

Eagles, unlike people have two birthdays. There is cause for celebration when the egg is laid, and there is yet another celebration when it hatches. In a way, the nail chewing period stretches the entire incubation period for nearly two months. If one or more eggs hatch, Sarah, Mwanzia and I would be thrown into disarray. Good food will be the top priority, and not easy to find.

Of course this is something of a record. Rosy is the only eagle in the world with 2 artificial lenses. He is the only one with such a disability to breed. That both are in the mid thirties is also a feat of sorts. And in Africa captive breeding eagles of any sort is extremely rare. On top of all that, not much was going for them when Sarah stepped in and helped us all out when we had to separate and go our different ways. One thing is for sure, I have felt an inexorable pull towards them and failed hopelessly in the attempt to rid myself of the birds and get a “real job”. I can’t, and should they have a chick I see it as inevitable that I slide back into doing what I always enjoyed. Breeding eagles and releasing their young is about the only thing that has made sense to me in a conservation world utterly bogged down in semantics, strategic plans, funding proposals, jargon and futile inaction. Rare is it to break through and actually work with wildlife make it grow, nurture it and set it free.

(Here I end the second blog entry……read on if you wish to know what happened!)

The Little Owl Sanctuary: Waddlesworth Strikes Again

Another great post from guest blogger, Sarah Higgins of the Little Owl Sanctuary!

A few mornings ago Waddlesworth, the Pelican, excelled himself. He swallowed a teaspoon!

Sammy had just laid the table on the veranda when ‘himself’ arrived and snatched a teaspoon off the table. This is not unusual and we are always shooing him off the veranda as he can be a bit of a pest, but he was just too quick for Sammy and the spoon was gone before he could do anything about it. Swallowing the spoon was unusual as he normally just plays with whatever he has stolen until he gets bored and then he drops it and goes off to find something else to play with. Anyway Sammy didn’t know what to do and as I was not around he decided to give him some fish in the hope, I think, that the food would flush the spoon through the system. Whilst this might work for a human I was pretty sure that it wouldn’t work for a pelican.

So you swallowed a spoon, did you?

So you swallowed a spoon, did you?

As soon as I got back and had been told what had happened I rang our Vet and asked his advice but he had to confess that he had never had a situation like that before and told me that he would have to consult his partner and his books and then get back to me. Some time later he rang back to say that he was none the wiser.

Now, this won't hurt ...

Now, this won't hurt ...

As we know that baby pelicans put their heads inside their parent’s beaks to get the fish out of its crop, I decided that the only option was for me to put my arm down the poor creature’s throat and try to fish the spoon out. The Vet had kept muttering about anaesthetic but I decided that time was of the essence (our Vet is an hour and a half’s drive from here) and didn’t feel that this was strictly necessary so I rang next door and asked Jane to “bring a camera”, rounded up Waddles, got Sammy to hold him and Mwanzia to hold his beak open, oiled my arm with cooking oil and in I went.

Here we go ...

Here we go ...

Unfortunately there were about seven fish on top of the spoon but having fished them all out I eventually felt the spoon, part way through the second sphincter, and was able to retrieve it, much to the relief of us all … with the possible exception of Waddles who had just had his entire breakfast stolen, quite literally, right out of tummy!

Look! You can see my hand

Look! You can see my hand

Gosh, it's a long way down

Gosh, it's a long way down

Got it!

Got it!

Amazingly Waddles is still talking to me after all this, as he usually refuses to speak to me for at least a week after I have had to handle him and more often than not he also leaves home (for a day)! Not that he got the option this time as I confined him to the walled garden for the rest of the day until we were sure that he had suffered no ill effects from my cheerfully thrusting my arm down his throat. The attached pictures are courtesy of Eddie Ver Beek who was literally just arriving back from his honeymoon when Jane caught him and told him that he and his camera were needed next door!

The spoon

The spoon

Waddlesworth is still in fine fettle but I hope that he has learned his lesson and doesn’t swallow anything else that he shouldn’t.

There, that's better ...

There, that's better ...

The Little Owl Sanctuary: Meet Waddlesworth

Here’s another great guest post from Sarah Higgins!

In April, on the shore of Lake Elmenteita, a young pelican waddled up to a weekend cottage and begged for food from the couple staying there. As you can imagine they were somewhat startled by this but they rushed to the fridge and dug out some tilapia fillets, which the little fellow gulped down greedily. They then herded him back to the lake shore. Next morning he was back again so they gave him some nice smoked salmon and herded him back to the lake but, as they turned to go back, so did the pelican! They couldn’t get rid of him and had to assume that something had happened to his parents and that he was otherwise starving to death. As they were only there for the long weekend they didn’t quite know what to do about the bird as they couldn’t exactly take him back to Nairobi. So they rang a friend who suggested that they should bring him to me!

‘Waddlesworth,’ as he became known, arrived in the back seat of a car all wrapped up in a kikoy, looking very miserable, underweight and covered in lice. We put him in a nice warm compound with a bucket of water and I raided a neighbour’s deep freeze for some fish for that day and sent out to the local fish market for a regular supply of fresh fish. We checked him over and he seemed to be unharmed although he did seem to carry his left wing closer to his body than the other one, but there was no sign of any injury. I did notice that he was sort of ‘crackly’ as if he had bubble-wrap under his skin but not knowing anything about pelicans I didn’t take much notice and assumed that is what a pelican should feel like.

Waddles in May 2009
Waddles in May, 2009

Waddlesworth soon got the hang of being hand-fed and I became ‘Mummy.’ As soon as he saw me with the white ‘fish’ pot he would rush up, bumping into me, flapping his wings, making his baby ‘feed-me’ noises and biting excitedly (but gently) at my legs, his own wings, bushes, anything, in a food ‘frenzy’ – which is exactly how a baby pelican should behave! I have not had any experience rearing a baby pelican and so out came the books. Waddlesworth did exactly what a wild pelican should do and at exactly the right time he started practicing his wing flaps. From then on we allowed him the run of the garden with its two acres of sloping lawn that has a ‘haha’ at the bottom and then acres of wildlife-filled vlei between us and the edge of our rapidly receding lake (we are in a drought situation at present), so he has plenty of room for a long takeoff and safe landing. He quickly settled into a routine: Mornings – bullying the dogs and playing in the bird bath! Afternoons – sleeping off his busy morning.

Waddles and Radar
Waddles and Radar

When he was old enough he put himself on a ‘flight diet’ to loose sufficient weight to be able to take off and then, a few days later, off he went on his maiden flight. He tried a steep turn but didn’t quite make it home and ended up in my neighbour’s hedge, being eyed up by their huge dogs. I galloped round, rescued him from the hedge and carried him home. As soon as I put him down he stomped off to his favourite snooze spot and slept for the rest of the day. Next day he set off again and again miscalculated and ended up in the neighbour’s garden. So I nipped round next door and herded him back home and once more he slept away the rest of the day. After that he seemed to give up all idea of flight and went back to his dog bullying and mucking about in the bird bath (I still haven’t been able to persuade him to float about on the pond, which doesn’t auger well for life on his own!). I had hoped that in the three weeks between his first flight and our intended overseas trip he would have become a good pilot and left home, but no such luck. After much discussion we decided that Waddles should remain in the walled garden beside the house whilst we were away so that he couldn’t get himself into trouble.

On our return we found him in good form but he had now transferred his affections to Sammy, who had taken over feeding duty, and didn’t recognise me any more (I confess to feeling just a tad miffed that he could be so fickle!). We had decided that we should tag Waddlesworth before he went off on his next adventure so when Simon suddenly appeared out of the blue he was asked to do the deed. Waddles now wears a smart yellow (number 56) wing tag. Whilst tagging him, Simon remarked on the odd bubble-wrap feel of the bird but, like me, was not sure if this was normal, but suspected that it might not be. So now I am trying to find someone who knows something about pelicans who might be able to tell us. The crackly ‘bubble-wrap’ is all over his body, even his wings! Can anyone shed some light on this?

Waddles july 2009
Waddlesworth, July 2009

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).

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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!

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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.

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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.

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.

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Vero’s nest

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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.

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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.

Lucy did not return

On the 8th August, I returned with Rosy from his eye exam at Kikuyu. It was late afternoon and Rosy was still dopey from being anesthetised. I went, as usual, to release Tim and Lucy, the pair of Lanner Falcons, for their afternoon flight. They had a set routine, rushing off together and sometimes fighting, until they reach the windmill about 1km from the house. There, Lucy likes to jump into the muddy runoff and have a bathe and drink. Then, she and Tim perch (shamefully) in the only exotic tree in the entire region……an ugly Pepper Tree.

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Lucy

They either wait here until I catch up, or go off causing havoc among the Crowned Plovers. The plovers go through the same routine each afternoon, and will even rise up in mock panic when I appear without the falcons. Nothing ever happens to them for they are much to clued-up.

On this evening, however, I had to sit with Rosy holding his head up so that he could breathe easily. I often leave the falcons to their own devises and as darkness approaches, stand outside and yell for them to return. There was one thing slightly different from usual. Tim took off after a Black Shouldered Kite and bullied him to drop a mouse he had just caught. I saw this happening down wind of the house. I had Rosy in my arms and was unable to walk around the back of the house quick enough to see what happened next. Tim had the mouse in his talons and was being pursued by Lucy, who had piracy on her mind. The next thing I knew, Tim was coming back empty handed. Lucy had gone, no doubt carrying the mouse off to eat it in peace.

A few years ago I had two passage female Lanners that would consistently chase Black Shouldered Kites and pirate prey from them. They got to be so complacent that they would fly off and sit in a bush waiting. From as far as a few kilometers they would start the chase. It is termed klepto–parasitism, in fancy English. Anyway it ruined every day outing, and ended up with the two of them zooming off on their own to a life of thievery.

Lucy never came back. I wrote to Laila to tell her that Tim was sad, and she responded by asking how I knew that, claiming I might be anthropomorphizing (again!). The way I can tell is that Tim now doesn’t sit on his night perch as before…….closer to Lucy’s side. During his flights out, he never goes up wind to the windmill, but goes straight like an arrow far downwind and out of sight, in the direction we last saw Lucy. Sometimes he is out for hours and I suspect a secret affair, or at least I hope so. He did this yesterday too, now a week later.

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Lucy

I had hoped Tim and Lucy would be a pair, and managing them this way would, I am sure, oblige them at some point to become a territory holding breeding pair. It is still far too early for this to happen, although Tim and Lucy were beginning to moult into their adult plumage. I am happy that Lucy did the predictable. She is very fit. A few days before she and Tim snagged a full grown Yellow-neck. Tim overhauled and hit it hard, and Lucy came in behind and tackled it to the ground. I ran up to see the francolin already dead, and Lucy being rather badly behaved towards Tim who ran around trying to get his share.

Lucy has the best chance now. She would have died in her cage had she not been given this chance, which she was always (like Tim) free to take. I have no misgivings about loosing her and wish her well. She may return.