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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!

Indispensable Sheryl

For a whole year while we were on the expedition, Sheryl Bottner posted all our blogs, updated our Facebook group, Twittered and generally supported us. Without her, we would not have been able to maintain our online presence and for that, Simon and I are extremely grateful.

Not only did she help with technological aspects, but was of constant moral support. People reading the blogs at home might not realise how important it is for bloggers to receive feedback, but Sheryl was always there with an encouraging comment.

So, Sheryl, Thank You.

Another milestone

From Sarah Higgins:

At 1.45 this afternoon, Rosy laid claim to his new territory!

This is the first time that he has used his territorial call since he has been in Naivasha. It was also the first time that I have ever heard a Crowned Eagle’s full cry and I was momentarily confused by this unknown sound. But then my heart swelled with joy – Rosy is feeling at home enough to start laying claim to his new patch. So – another milestone is passed, and I am sure that Girl too will be taking comfort from her male’s warrior cry.

The Rains

Rosy sits outside right now eating contentedly on the lawn. He is not alone as Tim the Lanneret has come back after a few days out on his own, and sits on his perch about 10m away. Things are looking bright and fresh.

The rains broke 3 days ago, and with it came an end to the dry season. It is a harsh time, extenuated by the sudden prevalence of many hundreds of starved cattle that have been settled near to my house. They flatten the land and turned it within weeks into a dust bowl. The wildlife scattered and the water resources were limited only to the livestock. I will never be convinced, no matter how indoctrinated that livestock is good for wildlife conservation.

With the dry season comes irritability. As the drought proceeds, people become fractious. In truth, the immediate environment so dictates peoples lives that moods can swing from day to day because a lot depends upon the weather. At no other time is there more social unrest than when there is a drought. As if to prove the point, I was raided again by two thugs a few weeks ago who approached Jonathan and I armed with clubs and machetes. They turned away only when faced with a greater adversity. The pattern is obvious. I have learned through experience to associate cattle with insecurity.

The dry season is not, as many people think, the warmest. Tourists and film crews come specifically for the dry season assuming it to be warm with blue skies. But it is usually cool with grey days, but latterly there has been high winds and dust with a few clear skies. Suddenly the afternoons fell quite, and the temperature shot up. Heat and humidity rose to a point that made all on edge. Lone wildebeest stood staring at the ground for hours in the heat haze. Zebra herds stood still, chins on the back of friends. Vultures circled each noon over dead animals. We have seen droughts that kill thousands of animals. The birds sang, especially the Hildebrant’s Starlings. Stupid birds! Groups of birds formed and sat in the tops of trees and sang. Idiots! There was no way it was going to rain.

At mid day and in the afternoons, we sought out the shade. In the bird sheds, the temperature could have cooked bread. Girl (Rosy’s mate) and Mutt the Lammergeyer sit in enclosed sheds now. The temperature made them very quiet.

Would it end, or would it be another severe drought?

Over the last two weeks, the clouds gathered each day and threatened to burst. They were black and turgid with rain. The flat bottoms of rain clouds seem perfect and solid. Above them curl mounds of clouds that shoot over 20,000ft into the sky. The temperature soared and we all prayed. It never came. The wind blew it all away and the birds stopped singing.

But 3 days ago the rain started. Not a huge dramatic downpour, but light. That is good because hard rain on denuded soil destroys the land. Immediately all our moods changed. The birds sang again. They have only a few weeks to build nests and breed. Most do not succeed as this is the short rains, but they will try.

I heard my first Eurasian Bee Eaters this week, high up out of sight. They call in the new year. As soon as they arrive, I start looking out for other migratory birds. I saw my first 2 Eurasian Hobbies too, flying low against the high wind that carried rain. I would have overlooked them had Tim not been feeding on my fist and looked up. They look like him and the local small bird community let out a warning cry thinking they are in danger. Soon though, after they have seen a few dozen more, they will cease their warning cries as Hobbies at this time of the year are harmless. Eating only airborne insects in and near rain fronts.

As soon as the grass turns green, the cattle will go and with them the noisy herders. Their nightly shrieking and yelling has subsided too. Things will return to normal and the cheetahs will come back to hunt near my windmill on the hill.

I wonder what this house will look like when we have all left. But I am not that sad now and anxious to get out and away. I do love these plains but things have changed. Rosy is now the principle thing holding me back. It is ironic that it was he who started it all 30 years ago, and it is with him that this big chapter of my life will soon end. I do hope one day to pick up again with him and his mate Girl. Meanwhile I do not have the means to give them what they deserve.

Thanks

Paula Kahumbu came over with her son Josh over the weekend and sat me down in front of the computer for an intense course. She used a new cell phone modem that cut through the fog and finally I was able to see the Wildlife Direct web site in the comfort of my own computer!

I noted with delight that I have been given quite a bit of money. Some $400 has been donated by three people. It is all the more  generous as I have never specified what I need money for, and to be honest I never thought I would get donations. Now that I have, I must first acknowledge how grateful I am, and also confide in those that support this work that I have had to make a lot of changes of late.

I am grateful to Fineley, Teresa and Antonio and can tell you all that I shall probably put this money into saving the sight of Rosy the male Crowned Eagle. I shall have to post this particular story soon, but in short,Rosy now 32 years old has cataracts in both eyes. He now sits on his shed floor with his mate occasionally descending from the nest tree above to help feed him. He must have an operation that can restore his sight to near normal. Frustratingly, the very laws put in place to help protect wildlife, instead of assisting and expediating the process have conspired to thwart his emergency export to the only animal eye hospital in Africa. I have a quote for the operation at some 14,797 Rand(about $2140) [email protected] (without airfare). I shall now try to raise funds for this project, perhaps through this blog.

In the last year there have been many changes in the life of my raptor collection due to necessary changes in how I live and support myself financially. I have not earned any money for this last year, having asked my former employer that I retire in order to re-evaluate my priorities. The reasons were mostly due to a domestic personal down-turn of events but inflation and increasing lack of security in the immediate area were additional factors.

This entails closing down all operations at Game Ranching Athi River where the birds and I live. I have actively tried to get the collection to its lowest for some years now, recognising that I cannot work, meet expectations and keep a menagerie of wild animals at the same time. The birds down from some 20, to 9 in the last year to now only 6. Most have been released (as is the objective) and others will be given new homes. I plan to be able to return to this former life, with some of my old collection of birds if possible once I am more secure and better able to manage them to a standard they deserve.

Far from backing out I hope to become more effective and better able to financially support these animals. I intend to get some important data regarding the status of raptors throughout Africa and ultimately earning some revenue.

I will be driving throughout Africa with Laila gathering material for a series of reports and books on raptors. Laila Bahaa-el-din is as passionate about raptors and conservation of wildlife as I.  She is a highly talented stills photographer and travelled widely working with monkeys, cheetah, tigers, vultures on three continents. She also knows how to organise and most importantly how to run a computer with all its unintelligble communication problems that so inhibit me. She will soon be writing on this blog, introducing the across Africa Raptor Expedition.

Thanks again to all of those that check in from time to time and especially to those who have donated.

Ranthambhore

23rd to 24th Nov 2007.

Munir, Pat and I caught the afternoon train in Delhi and arrived late that same day at Sawai Madhopur. Ranthambhore the quintessential ‘Tiger’ park of India was our destination. We were to stay in a lodge on the outskirts of the park. It needs some explanation for those who may have visited other lodges in Africa where they are placed within the park or reserve and are typically situated overlooking a grand natural vista or a waterhole teeming with wildlife. In India this experience, although certainly possible, is not available in the same manner. Instead the lodges are placed outside and are usually fenced off or even surrounded by a high wall excluding wildlife. Although there is a lot to be said in keeping lodges, infrastructure and especially people outside of protected areas (for the good of wildlife); this is not the rationale.

Some camps and lodges do attempt a more natural setting, but apparently they are not so popular among local tourists that make up a significant proportion of the tourists visiting the parks. The government stipulations may encourage the segregation of tourists from wildlife, presumably fearing that a wacky tourist may decide to go jogging and get taken out by an errant animal. Or more sensibly to ensure that the wildlife receives minimum harassment and some peace at least for a portion of the day. Whatever the case it is a pity as one misses out on so much of the wildlife experience. One cannot for example, lie awake at night and listen to the sounds of the “jungle”, the sawing grunt of the leopard, the bark of the deer or the hoot of a Fishing Owl. There is no question of being able to back-pack in solitude away from the maddening crowd alone and “at one” with the wilderness. I can understand this given that tigers are seemingly evolved to munch humans. But in areas where tigers are few the dangers do not compare to that encountered in African reserves where bush walking safaris are allowed. There is no private or community owned land of the same scale in India with large wildlife in which one can wander about camping. There is a move toward it and tourism could greatly benefit if it offered outdoor activities and light bush camps. India could learn as much from African wildlife tourism as we could from their intensive management of their parks.

Given these stipulations the lodges themselves have a particular charm. They focus more on the client’s comfort and cuisine. We were fortunate to be staying in one of the best called Dev Villas. Unfortunately Laila had arrived just ahead of us and had been abandoned at the railway station for hours, which is a miserable experience. She had however made good of the afternoon and had gone on an open bus into the park and had seen two tigers.

The next morning we awoke at 6AM, and bundled up with blankets in the back of an open Maruti/Suzuki Jeep, for a drive around the park in the buffer zones to count vultures. Our routine was to drive to locations where there were Long-billed Vulture nests. Although some nests where within the park most lay outside. Munir had a massive file of photos of the cliffs taken previously with nest sites marked on the enlarged prints. Vultures after a few millennia leave very obvious “white wash” in pot holes, ledges and outcrops of rock. It is a simple matter to check these places and see what the vultures are doing. Pat squinted down the scope and read out the number and whether or not it was occupied by a vulture that was sitting/standing/ nest building/incubating etc. Munir then wrote the data down. Laila assisted in data collection and spotted other vultures or nests and I annoyed everybody by double checking and making asinine comments that the vulture was squatting, not sitting, and facing left not right. I had to be very careful in my jest as these things were taken very seriously. But I have to admit the level of detail left little or no room for error. I was learning, but quickly despaired of the enormity of the task when the time came to making head or tail of so much data. Luckily it isn’t my job.

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Munir and Laila checking nests on cliffs.

Our duties included spotting raptors of any kind. We enjoyed the challenge, it kept us on our toes, whether we were driving or counting vultures.
Most of our time at Ranthambhore we spent outside the park. I was especially keen to visit a cliff that I had seen in 2003. This buffer zone area is rich in wildlife and Pat and Munir regularly walk the base of a large section of cliffs counting vultures. I was not very well on that particular day, so when we spotted a dead vulture spread over its nest I offered to stay behind and see if I could get it. They went on and completed the count to finish at a small temple in which they found “the stone hurling guru”. Meanwhile I climbed the cliff using a fairly easy route but got sidetracked half way up. I videoed a vulture on the nest with a chick only a few meters away. But that was not what took my attention. Earlier I had seen leopard tracks lead to this same cliff, and I heard a Nilgai (Blue Bull) snort and trot away towards me when I approached the cliff base. I heard a few barks and cackles from the Langur Monkeys. Corbett wrote that these” little people” of the jungle would keep him informed of the movements of tigers and leopards. They sounded just like Vervet monkeys looking at Leopard. So I squirrelled along the cliff until I could see where a small troop perched just above me were looking. I sat for a good hour, when in broad daylight the leopard walked along the cliff edge slightly higher than I. I got some memorable video as he ambled along with no idea that anyone was around. I scrambled up the last section, and tracked him into a river bed and large cavern, where he reappeared briefly before heading on deeper into more extensive woodland. I treasured this moment more than any tiger sighting.
This time the “team” duplicated the same cliffs, but in reverse. We first visited the temple, set up our scope on the vulture nests only 100m away and begun counting. We had earlier seen a very unusual display by a Red headed Vulture. Two of them cruised high overhead, then one dropped in a side to side roll and stooped in a manner that would have made a Bateleur Eagle proud onto a young Bonelli’s Eagle. Pat really emphasised the need to consider this species in a very different light and we all agreed it is a species begging for research. The Red Headed Vulture is a very odd vulture in many ways more racy and eagle-like than the Lappet-faced or White headed Vultures of Africa. It appears in shape a little more like the White headed Vulture, despite having a face more similar to the Lappet-faced.

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For comparison. A Red Headed Vulture (Indian) with a White Headed Vulture (African) pasted in behind.

While on the temple roof a Common Kestrel, presumably from Eurasia busied himself nearby. I suspect he was a resident as there is little evidence to suggest otherwise. Then a Shikra appeared. Beneath our feet Rhesus Macaques wandered about. Then we went to the shrine itself embedded in the cliff wall where each of us took off our shoes and bent down to a small enclave in which water dripped permanently from a fig root onto a smooth rock. Here each of us was blessed and given a tika on our foreheads. Despite being normally reserved I went along with it and appeared with a red dot and felt all the better for it. We all did so and as it is bad luck to wipe it off, it remained for the rest of the day.
I did not get to see the leopard, but I think we all appreciated the walk watching birds, fragile Thomson’s gazelle-like Chinkara gazelles, Nilgai and Langurs. At one point we had stopped to look at some distant cliffs that needed a walk off the road. I looked down and there had just recently passed a large male leopard. A tiny motorbike barely able to support to large men struggled past and stopped. We told them we had seen leopard tracks, and they replied that the leopard had taken a goat in the village last night and had walked in this direction. Everyone seems to know the local leopard and has up-to-date news on what it is up to. Incredulously to me, no-one was in any way upset about it taking livestock (a capital offence back home and a matter likely to fan the flames of dissatisfaction towards wildlife), nor worried about it in any way.

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Rufous Treepie.

Treepies are a noisy ubiquitous bird. They were particularly tame at a guard station that was under construction. Later we heard a group clamouring in a bush and went over to see a snake glide out of the tree and into a hole.

Of raptors in general we were struggling to find many. Given that our focus was on cliffs, a habitat that favours large falcons as well as eagles and ridge soaring migrant raptors, the paucity of sightings obliged us to return to our old conclusion: that being that India has either very few raptors, or that there has been a dramatic decline. A cursory glance in the field guide gives all sort of species as being resident or migrant in this region. But except for the Shikra, a few Black shouldered Kites, one Short-toed Snake Eagle and 2 Bonelli’s Eagles our count was dismal by anyone’s standards. We had eight very good eyes on the job. That we saw no large falcon was especially poignant. Perhaps like in Africa raptors can slide into oblivion unnoticed because of the importance others set on the photogenic mega fauna.

25th Nov. 2007.
Spent morning in park checked on the Guddha cliffs and returned looking for tiger. We did stop and watch a Sambar suckle its new born. She at first approached the calf that lay hidden in the grass with a measured step and half raised tail, as though she had seen a predator. We were sure this was the case and moved toward her. The calf was so hungry that they allowed us to come very close while his mother stood still. Finally he realised we were there and moved off and turned around with raised tail.

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On the 25th Nov I received some terrible news from my family, that I cannot relate here. I was lucky to be with good friends and I owe them much for their support during the next few weeks when my company could not have been anything other than miserable. I did not return home but stayed on.

India Raptors

21st Nov 2007.

trip. Background.

This entry covers a trip made to

from 21st Nov to 9th Dec.

To many the word ‘Africa’ has a warm timbre, but I guess because I was born in it, it has nowhere near the same resonance as ‘

‘. As a child I remember Riki Tiki Tavi, The Jungle Book and the Man-eaters of Kamoun. These were the standard English literature reading of my generation. Kipling and Corbett’s world portrayed the natural history side of

, perhaps now superseded (from the westerner’s point of view) by a spiritual hankering for personal betterment. I guess the westerner is greatly impressed by the sight of millions living in total poverty in terrible conditions. So was I but for different reasons. We have the same problems at home, and it is very rapidly expanding. One year the plains may be filled with zebra, the next it is covered in shanty dwellings and desperate people. In

the difference is that it has history and the poor seem to accept it with astonishing peace. I suppose they do have spiritual lessons for us all if, as is the inevitable prediction, the whole world will be a shuffling herd of back to back humanity. The spiritual side of things is likely to continue for a while and I have a panicked urgency to see its nature before it goes.

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Hanuman Langur Monkeys

I am an infrequent traveller because I can seldom get away from the captive collection of raptors and animals at home. But now with so few it is possible to do so. My last overseas trip was in 2003, again to

. Then I was a bit of a mess, having just survived being shot at in my living room on two separate occasions. That trip greatly helped, and gave me time out to look back on my home and situation. I vowed then to leave my home and work, but four years on I remain in much the same situation simply because I know of no other way to live. It had to take another personal ‘shake-up” to justify this trip. Perhaps after-all I believed that I would have clarity in

that would not be possible to have at home. Although it was not to be a working trip in the usual sense I had clear goals to set. First, to catch up on Indian raptor affairs, second to be with friends. Third, to think and to make plans regarding my birds, home, work and personal life.

In the last few days before leaving I put some of the birds, such as the Lammergeyer in a small shed. The Black Sparrowhawk with the spinal fracture (who is doing so much better……but flies sideways) was put in another walled-off enclosure. I rushed around giving instructions and counter instructions to Mwanzia and Jonathan who patiently took in everything (or erased it as the case may be). During my absence they had to make one trip to a nearby chicken farm to get day old chicks, the staple food for the hawks. This was to be the first time in more than seven years that I entrusted my vehicle to be used for the once a week (or sometime once a fortnight) trip to collect bird food. After staff and volunteers had wrecked a total of 5 vehicles supposedly doing this simple chore in the past, I have reasonable cause to be terrified of this small favour. It is vital of course and has moulded my life for decades. They assured me endlessly that all would be well and that I should go in peace and not fret.

The flight.

I have the perennial misfortune on planes to sit next to the person with the most highly contagious chest complaint of all the passengers. The moment I looked down the aisle my eye caught sight of a spluttering swarthy character and I knew without checking my boarding pass where I was destined to sit. The second I sat down he was immediately discombobulated with limbs disjointed and covered all three seats. My best threatening smile did no good. Despite firmly taking possession of the arm rest and pushing my elbows a fraction into “his” space, he remained unmoved and smiled pleasantly back between heaving coughs which he made no effort to cover. Damn I thought; I’m going to start this trip sick. Consciously I breathed in as little as I could, assuming that this would be a sure way to avoid the germs. But hours into the flight I resumed breathing, only to have him remove his shoes. Man alive! I kid you not, the stench swivelled the heads of those in all rows around us. He knew no known language of course, and was immune to body language and gestures that even a horse would understand.

I resumed the “battle for space” again, filled out my frame and took some command. I even experimented by keeping my elbow on the rest against his, and pushed infinitesimally harder. Although our eyes were firmly fixed on the dirty overhead TV screen placed at an awkward angle to our right the struggle achieved full fledged arm wrestle standards, until the stewardess arrived and asked if I preferred vegetarian or non-vegetarian.

I landed at Mumbai and then caught a plane to

at dawn. Looking out the window at the diffuse orange glow the sun barely permeated a sulphurous haze stretching from ground level to far above the plane. This smog was with us uninterrupted the entire way. This is one of the most polluted places on earth. In Delhi I was met by Manjeet Sharma our “agent”, and swiftly driven away, through near choking acidic fumes and unbelievably busy streets humming with 3 wheeler taxis, road-side kiosks, ambling cows, defecating dogs and children and massive billboards with pictures of gorgeous green-eyed Indian ladies and handsome fellows with shades and torn shirts. You have to physically flick a switch in your brain and not dwell on a fleeting glimpse of a crippled destitute, a dog licking something suspicious on the road, a sari clad group of women, glitzy city types, the crows and dull cows holding up traffic. Affluence and effluence all in one frame. The driving is special though. The idea is that you floor it as fast as you can to the rear end of the vehicle in front of you, then slam on your brakes, violently jerk the steering wheel and hit the horn. Although it is now against the law to hoot in

the lorries all have painted signs on the back saying “Please hoot the horn”. It is madness.

In 2003 I went to join The Peregrine Fund to meet up with my Kenyan colleague Munir Virani, and Pat Benson. They were busy working on the vultures that had suffered some 95% population declines during the preceding 7 years or so. It is now common knowledge that this decline was due to a pain relieving drug called diclofenec. It is commonly used globally for humans, but the veterinary use allows it to be ingested by vultures. Formerly vultures numbered in their thousands in cities and towns as do the still roaming cattle. Should an ailing cow be encountered the Hindu especially may feel a religious obligation to help. For only a few rupees the cow can get pain relief, but should it soon die it has the ability to kill 100 or more vultures. Why? Birds and reptiles have very efficient kidneys. Diclofenec like many non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs affect kidney function, and can if used incorrectly destroy human and mammal kidneys too. Some 1000 people die of related problems each year. But in birds a tiny amount will stop kidney function.

of urates fill the joints, and body cavities and the bird dies in agony. What little that can be said in defence of the use of this drug is that at least it was done in the hope of lessening animal suffering. It was not deliberate, as is the case of wanton poisoning in much of

. But the use of this drug in veterinary care is so widespread and so much part of the cultural approach to animal care that it will result in the extinction of vultures, and many scavenging bird species. It isn’t the first time that an animal welfare concept has back-lashed and caused such havoc for wildlife, I suspect it is the rule.

This catastrophe equals, if exceeds the global effect of persistent agro-chemicals on raptors during the 1960s, but still struggles to be given the same public acknowledgement. Perhaps because the subjects undergoing declines are scavenging birds, pariahs of wildlife, and the unglamourous undertakers few care. Or perhaps people are suffering from “caring fatigue”. We just have too much to consider and worry about these days. But put in their rightful perspective, there can be no other group of animals more valuable to the environment (and rural human life), than those that clean it up. Now that I personally have stepped out of the conservation arena and can allow some unbiased objectivity I can imagine no more important field in raptor conservation than this. It should rank very high up the global agenda for conservation as a whole. We are not talking of species conservation here for nice ethical reasons; we are talking of ecological health of an environment shared with a billion and more humans that are expected to be adversely affected.

The Peregrine Fund was in large part was responsible for discovery of the cause of vulture loss in

India
and

and Munir and Pat continued to play a critical role in monitoring the vulture numbers. The RSPB too contributed enormously to the awareness and support of the ban on the veterinary production of diclofenec. Now after the ban the hope is to see a recovery. It occurred to me during a soul searching moment that in a field in which happy endings and positive outcomes are so rare (conservation), to be there and witness a recovery is too good a thing to miss.

In 2003 I was able to tag along a see for myself the vultures and other raptors for myself. My impressions then were mixed.

is huge. It is surprisingly well wooded. For example an area nearly the size of

is protected indigenous forest land, mostly on hills to conserve water supplies. This is quite separate from the protected wildlife parks and sanctuaries. Land use is more communal, orderly and productively managed. For the most part people live in villages or communities and move out each day to till the land and tend to livestock, rather than stake a land claim and pitch a house in the middle of a tiny fenced-off area. There are almost no fences. That’s a good lesson for most of

. The country-side and valleys do not reverberate with the sound of incessant tree felling as is the case at home. Most of the food is cooked on efficient stoves using cow pats and grass. People plant trees, indigenous ones mostly……..not soil killing and thirsty eucalyptus. Attitudes to wildlife are one of high tolerance. Langur Monkeys sit side by side with people on busy streets and roof tops, Nilgai antelope graze cereal crops without harassment, mynas, crows and treepies sit within arms reach. Leopards are given names and walk through villages and towns at night. Tigers and elephants aren’t considered a problem until they have killed quite a few people. This level of reverence for wildlife is something we in

simply do not have today. But I have learnt not to be naïve and assume that all is well and that there is a Utopian world in which people live in harmony with wildlife. It is said of

, repeated ad nauseam until one must believe it or fall out of line, despite the facts indicating the very reverse. Wildlife poaching is silent and rampant in

, conducted perhaps even more undetected because of the exoskeleton of seemingly harmonious cultural attitudes. But whether or not poaching exists is largely immaterial to the whole.
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like

faces no future for wildlife if is continues to have a burgeoning human population. One cannot help but be impressed that despite the numbers of people tigers do still roam their jungles. There is hope, and we can learn from them many important lessons for African conservation.

We ‘did’ the famous reserves not because we enjoyed being sidetracked by leopards and tigers, but because we wanted to see vultures.

There are 3 Gyps species very similar to the 2 species we have in

. They are the Oriental White-backed, Long billed and Slender billed Vultures. The Oriental is perhaps too readily compared to the African White-backed, and the other two are more like our Rüppell’s ‘Griffon’ Vultures. The smaller Oriental White-back has declined the fastest, and is virtually extinct in a vast area of its former range. For no very good reason the Long-billed appears to be still holding on, relatively speaking, at its breeding colonies. It was odd to stand looking up at a cliff face in Bandhavgarh and see more vultures than would be encountered in even the largest colonies in

. That could mean that Kenyan Rüppell’s were not doing so good or that Indian vultures weren’t doing so bad. Or that one had a heck of a lot more work to do before one could offer a reasonable opinion.

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Indian Long-billed Vulture.

Tomorrow I hope to be meeting up with Munir and Pat again. Munir is very organised and thorough and has the energy necessary to drive the process. I was at first scared of Pat. He looks like a professional wrestler and has no time for frivolity in the field. But Pat is actually a soft-hearted man. He has done a tremendous amount of work on the

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. Laila Bahaa-el-din is joining us too. Laila is already in

working at Kipling Camp in Kanha. She was my last volunteer at home in August who despite being discouraged from turning up still came and helped fly the birds and catch vultures in the Mara. She wishes to do a PhD soon and this may prove a great learning experience although I suspect her calling is more for big cats. I also hope to learn a lot on this trip. We make an odd team to be sure.

Veros and puppy

16th Nov 2007

Vero’s is a Verreaux’s Eagle. She is now 13 years old or so. Certainly out of all the birds she is the one that most visitors see up close. She must have sat on the gloved arms of thousands. In this respect she is an extraordinary eagle. Few eagles anywhere in the world would fly to the arm of a complete stranger. None to my knowledge fly (safely) to the arm as those as young as 5 years. School children line up, and one by one don the eagle glove. She patiently waits and then flies in to a gentle landing. Kids are amazed. Vero’s is very gentle. 13 years on, grown-ups come back and say how this experience meant so much to them when they were kids.

There are those to whom she is less kind. Eagles are actually cowards. They do not feel comfortable if there is anyone threatening in a group of visitors. Sometimes I too feel strangely worried by a particular individual but cannot put my finger on just what it is that bothers me. Vero’s knows right away. She’ll stare hard at the person bow down, drop one wing and threaten them. But if they come close she will fly away in panic. I wonder if she would be good as a lie-detector. There are those who she knows she can intimidate. Sometimes she jumps at people just to see if they are on their toes, but doesn’t dream of actually hurting them. In a large group there is invariably one who is wearing an Ipod, cool shades, long baggy trousers, chewing gum, wearing a hat, and walking in an arrogant inner city style. It puts the hairs up the back of my neck, and it puts the feathers up the back of hers. She is happy to attack them as she knows they are more cowardly than she. Usually it is bluff but on 3 occasions she has attacked people and hurt them. Each time though it has been the fault of the victim, they may have dodged in the wrong direction and hit her. I realise with deep concern that this is very bad indeed and quite irresponsible of me to have allowed this to happen. Thankfully each bears scars of which they are very proud. “See these deep wounds, an huge eagle gave those to me”. A great way to break the ice at cocktails.

But out of all the chances in the world this tiny indiscretion is forgivable. By and large she is a sweet bird. She’d never hurt a child. She tip toes around them and understands they are very vulnerable. Just like a large dog she has terrifying potential. But just like a dog she respects everyone, unless she has good reason to think otherwise. Sometimes with big dogs you don’t mind them frightening people. It’s their job.

Vero’s has an odd relationship with my shenzi mutt. This puppy was procured for less than $3 from a cattle boma on the next door ranch. She is typical of her kind, disobedient and shy. But she is also very intelligent and faithful, fearlessly defending the house night and day and ignores the birds who ignore her back. All but Vero’s. When she was small she learnt early on that Vero’s could kill her with one squeeze of one foot. But she would trot past Vero’s and flirt with danger. Vero’s would turn her head upside down in amusement. But when puppy tried to take her food Vero’s would leap out and make a mock attack. Puppy scared witless at first would bolt away. But as this went on puppy got more and more cheeky, taking the game to its limits.

Thud! followed by a squeal. Oh dear, poor puppy I thought as I made my first cup of coffee. Where’s the spade? But on looking outside I saw Vero’s standing next to puppy who was leaping about in good spirits. Vero’s looked annoyed.

Sometimes Vero’s would leap off her perch and whack the puppy, but not hurt her. Puppy has on occasion pushed Veros with her nose off her perch. Now that puppy is nearly full grown these antics have taken on a new twist. Puppy often follows Vero’s and I when we go off together. Puppy gets a bee in her bonnet and runs around in circles in the grass as Vero’s glowers at her, hackles raised. If Vero’s assumes her dignity is being abused she takes off and chases puppy, who has been asking for it. There follows a brief chase, sometimes a thud and a happy dog and disgruntled eagle standing on the ground.

Below are a few pictures that show Vero’s taking off, chasing puppy and nearly catching her. Don’t be alarmed. This happens most days we go out. It is a game they play.

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Vero’s taking off with puppy in her sights.

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Puppy booting it with Vero’s on her tail.

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Puppy making a clever dodge to the left.

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Puppy jumps out of reach to the right. Vero’s lands empty handed. In this instance the whole process was repeated, but I had filled the memory card of the camera.

So there you have it. A bizarre eagle/dog relationship. In case one should think this sort of thing never happens in the wild, and it is bad practise to encourage a cross genera relationship then rest assured it does happen in the wild. I have seen Chanting Goshawks, Augur Buzzards, Tawny Eagles and African Hawk Eagles follow Banded and Slender-tailed mongoose. They even sit right next to them looking down holes in the hope that something will get flushed out. Tawny Eagles and Lappet faced Vultures will sometimes follow cheetahs, landing very close and presumably hoping that they will kill something they can eat. Baboons will associate with impala and bushbuck. Some infants even ride of the back of adult bushbuck. Many birds feed alongside cattle or ungulates. Most ungulate herds are mixed species. Terrapins sit on Hippos, water dikkops next to crocodiles, Chanting Goshawks next to Honey Badgers and Vero’s next to puppy.

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