An Eagle Attack.
The story of an abandoned student.
The people in the world of birds are supposed to be boring. “Birders” are the geeks of the animal interest group, dull and square. They are supposed to flit about and be nervous while ticking off what they see in gregarious groups. Sometimes I wish the raptor people were this way. But they tend to be a bit different. Su Kahumbu, sister of Paula at Wildlife Direct brought my attention to just one of these characters in a comment to a blog entry. Because it was a long time ago now, and I heard the man concerned is now conservative and mature I am sure he will find humour and answers if I write about him when he was in the agonising throws of late adolescences. I did an awful thing with this young man by abandoning him to be picked off by an eagle. I am anxious to put on record that I was more nervous looking after him at home than deserting him in a forest. Jens Bursell, grandson of the manager of Karen Blixen’s failed coffee farm “at the foot of the Ngong Hills” wrote a letter to me saying that he remembered the world famous Leslie Brown, and would I show him some Crowned Eagles when he came out? Being a bit of a snob myself I thought it would be a good thing to fall in with him. Show him around and loudly introduce him as the grandson of Karen Blixen’s failed coffee farm. This would go down well in Karen, the now high-end housing estate just outside Nairobi named in her honour. In Karen is the internationally famous nest site of a Crowned Eagle studied by the late Leslie Brown for over 30 years. This nest was remembered by the grand father concerned and his son. Leslie Brown had stayed with Jen’s father somewhere near Thika in what is now a huge pineapple farm. In those days the hills there were cloaked in thick forest supporting Crowned Eagles too. But they have long disappeared. So eagles and in particular Crowned Eagles, is in the blood of this family. I was at that time particularly poor and lived outside Athi River on a huge co-op ranch in a hovel with no water, electricity, etc. I used to cook my ugali on the dry hearts of sisal poles gathered from the few thousand acres of this nasty exotic plant that surrounded the house, on an outside defunct water boiler. At night this was tricky because I was frightened, not by wandering hyena and lion, but by marauding thugs that would spy on me while I made my meal in the light of a kerosene lamp. I would sleep in a different place each night, as I was raided so often. Not a pleasant situation. It was certainly not a place to have visitors. I think what was to follow was partly because I dreaded having anyone in this house and did my best to remain on my own. I did still have a three cylinder two stroke Suzuki Jeep, the first of its kind. As it had such high compression I was able to partly fuel it with much cheaper kerosene, although it messed the plugs. It had to do one chore only…….get day old chicks from Kenchick, a hatchery some 25km distant; once a week. I had an old kerosene fridge that invariably went on the blink and ruined the bird food before the week was up. With the 15 odd hawks, 2 dogs, 1 cat we shared one 20 litre jerry can of river water every other day, fetched from the badly polluted Athi River some 5km distant. I was highly embarrassed that life had taken a downward turn and really didn’t want visitors.
Crowned Eagles on nest. Photo Jens Bursell.
The house had been built by an acquaintance during better times who, when leaving the country and knowing I suddenly had no place to go, kindly offered that I took it on for free. What I did not know was that no one had lived in it for years. It was a square block, with a wooden upstairs built as an after-thought. It stood lone sentinel facing a small valley that made a pleasant view. Behind it was the sisal plantation left to rot and covering some 5000 acres. Although hardly used and ignored by the people who originally whacked down swathes of pristine woodland to grow it, wildlife had a chance to make do, return and prosper. Fine indigenous trees re-grew through the plantation, and because sisal has such wicked thorns few people then took the trouble to go into these thickets and fell the trees. As a result a few raptors bred there and even a herd of buffalo once lurked unseen and unharmed. I did notice was that some buffalo were blind, as were some bushbuck and impala. When the poachers came (after the co-op ranch was sub-divided) I had plenty of opportunity to see why these animals were blind for they lay rotting in numerous snares, that no one bothered to check. (so much for protein deprivation as a major reason for poaching). Many animals had impaled themselves on the wicked thorn tips of the sisal. Numerous lesions of this sort were in their bodies, but this price was evidently worth the seclusion it offered. Leopards and lions too used this plantation and I often wondered how they fared among the lance tip blades of sisal. We had man-eaters too, whose partly consumed victims, for some reason needed my inspection…..but that is another story. The outside ladder of the house had bullet holes in it from some un-welcomed visitation. The trouble about “upstairs” was that bees, in their droves had flown in through the gaps in the planks and lay half a meter thick against the pane glass window. Although the bees were removed the smell could not be removed and more bees would invade. I knocked out that pane glass window as it routinely killed birds too, that flew smack into it. It was un-livable upstairs and was a shadow of it former self, for at some point it must have had a charm, overlooking the valley. I lived down stairs. I was not hoping to live there for long and it was an awful bachelor mess. The farm had just been “sub-divided” and all the wildlife and trees were being poached as is usual in every instance when this “land use” is put into effect. In less than 6 months there was almost nothing left on Kinania Ranch. Shame, because it had some 300 buffalo and 30 lion, thousands of plains game, hippo crocodiles and leopards galore. But because policies carefully make sure these animals are valueless and a nuisance and quick-rich land subdivision an attractive if non sustainable option wildlife was exterminated at frightening speed. I lived there during this period, and security too for the former “country” inhabitants by the roving new “urban” arrivals was very bad. I had written to Jens explaining where I was and that things were bad. Letters in those days were slow, and there were no such things as telephones, so it is no surprise that I had a visit from a complete stranger, telling me that there was a “Strange mazungu” at Athi river waiting there for me to pick him up. Off Holmes (My old dog) and I went, in the pouring rain to locate him. Athi town was then pretty small, so I was able to do all 2 semi decent hotels in good time; but without success. There was however a “hotel” of very poor repute where, the local chemist informed me, a certain “Odd mazungu” would be found. This was a bad prospect for me, as when I approached the hutches outside its floral painted bar I heard giggles and such like. A garishly clad lady opened the door when I knocked, and I was most embarrassed and apologised, however Jens called out my name from within and so we met. When Jens stepped outside in the rain and shock my hand I knew this relationship was going to end badly, and soon. He had a crew cut, but from his front forehead hung a shock of white hair that bisected his face to his chin. He flicked this back and I noticed that he was very much younger than I had at first thought. His chin had a feeble stubble and his clothes draped off him because they were much too large. The few Danes I had met before were all straightforward and square but I had no idea that he was going to be unintelligible and this unacceptable. No way in heck was I going to show this guy off to the Karen Country Club Members! (not that I have ever been there in my life). Gathering up his backpack I was suddenly aware of an overpowering stench. I am not kidding, he stunk like a bloated and long dead hyena! I almost choked! Gritting my teeth and thinking what a fool I was, we set out for home through mud and torrential rivers that cut off the track. In retrospect I should have left him because things turned out badly for him. The next few days were painful. What was especially bad was that my eagles perched outside on the lawn during the day took one look at him and went berserk trying to escape. Eagles and especially Crowned Eagles have fragile nerves, and if a human looks a little odd or unstable they immediately stare at them with gog-eyes. They often detect odd streaks of character way before I do. Jens was not that bad at all, but his outward appearance was. He may as well have donned a Viking brass cap with horns sticking out of it and charged about the lawn waving a battle axe. His “animal aggressive” appearance and the fact that he had very little in the way of wildlife “tact’…..(a sort of smooth quite way one adopts when in front of animals) meant he could not participate with the birds. That night I hastily retreated upstairs among the dead bees, wet floor and howling wind. He laid out his sleeping bag on the Ethiopian carpet downstairs. We made meals of some kind I guess and talked of eagles, and fish.
The female Crowned Eagle arriving at nest with fresh branches. (Photo Jens Bursell)
I begged him to bathe. He said no. I thought that perhaps he had thought that because there was no bath or shower or loo that he was just being polite. I showed him my outside shower bucket, and galloped off down to the river and returned with a whole new jerry can of water for him. Still he said no. The rain kept up, and although I had made plans for him to visit the Crowned Eagle nest in Ololua forest, in Karen, I knew that I could not shuttle him back and forth and keep an eye on him. I was a poor host and remember I was also flat broke. We ate ugali and beans, which he adored. The rain still did not stop and I could not escape. He told me about his fishing exploits. He had caught the biggest Carp in Denmark, and he had written some books on the subject. The rain kept on falling! The reason for his hygiene, so he told me, was because he had promised his girlfriend in Denmark that he would never wash as a sign of fidelity. Very rum I thought. Imagine what his girlfriend must be like? In the middle of all this, Holmes, who was getting on in years, came into the house foaming at the mouth and barking his head off insanely. Quick! I leapt to my feet and thought rabies. I had to shoot a rabid dog a few weeks ago that came through the house. I danced about Holmes and managed to slam the door on him. Now what? I can’t possibly kill my dog. It was dark and it would have to wait till morning. Then from behind the locked door I heard. “Ummm yaaa de dog is behavingly strange”. Oh heck I threw open the door and let Holmes out, apologising to Jens. Quickly I did some diagnosis. Earlier that same day a huge Egyptian Cobra had moved through the back guttering and toward the area in which I fed the dogs. There it had gone down a termite hole. About 20 minutes previously I had heard him howl and had run out shouting for him to come back in. It is not uncommon for thieves to chuck poisoned food to dogs to kill them before raiding the house…but usually on moon-lit nights…..not dark nights pouring with rain. I checked him over. Sure enough he had been bitten. But I wasn’t that sure. I bid Jens good night and asked him to knock on the ceiling above if Holmes got worse. Holmes recovered enough so that I could take him in the next day with Jens. Plan. 1. Drop off the dog at the vet. 2. Take Jens to the Crowned Eagle hide in Ololua Forest. The precious year I had built a hide some 75m away from the Crowned Eagle pair for Alan Root who wanted some in nest footage of eagles going about their business. The time I had spent there was now looking back, totally amazing. I was able to stay day and sometimes all night on a wooden platform some 6ft by 6ft, perched like an eagles nest some 55ft above the ground. I would sit and watch these eagles. Knowing that this nest was perhaps the worlds most famous, and certainly the longest studied was an extra kick. The parents were raising their young at the time. Jens was actually incredibly privileged to be able to use the hide. As we climbed the hide tree I let Jens lead, showing him were to place his feet on the wooden pegs I had hammered into the trunk. The climb was done in two stages. First you had an easy ascent of about 15ft to a cunningly concealed weld-mesh gate. You had to unlock this gate, before climbing on and locking it behind you. The reason was to stop vandals and bums, sneaking up the tree. Some people had done so, having seen I suppose the hide from afar. They would easily disturb the eagle. One special thing about this stage one platform was that the weld mesh had settled lower branches and vines like a big bed. Not infrequently the neighbourhood leopard had left a small kill on this bed. She had also climbed right up into the hide, a real feat for a human, but I suppose nothing for her.As we ascended the second part, the pegs in the trunk rotated around the tree so that as you climbed you could see all around you, lest the eagles attack. Now these eagles have little fear of people, especially now as they had seen people going in and out of the hide. Leslie Brown has a picture of himself looking over his shoulder scowling at a deep wound in his back, punched through him by this same nest pair many years previously. You do not mess with these eagles, as a four inch hind talon hitting you like a sledge hammer isn’t going to help when you are clinging onto a tree a lethal distance from the ground.
Leslie Brown on left (Birds of Prey, their biology and ecology. Hamlyn 1976). I’m on top mimicking him with similar wounds. Same species inflicted these, but Brown’s got his from the same nest site in this story, showing that these eagles keep up same traditions over many decades. “Jens, you got to keep looking out for her. I can’t see her. Maybe she is hiding and will come at you from behind” I advised. ( I had had her scrape my leg recently, and this after many false attacks meant that she was getting bolder). “Yaaa Yaaa” Said Jens. All of a sudden the forest went quite. Nothing moved, no bird sung. Then a moment later a monkey cackled, and closer still a Turaco alarmed and my blood ran cold. I hung on for dear life, as this was the worst section of all, and stuck out a long leafy branch behind me. Beelzebub had been let out of hell and was rushing towards us invisible but certain to overtake us at shattering speed, and there was nothing we could do to stop the onslaught. (That’s how it feels like when you are clinging onto a tree for life). I told Jens to look out. In mid “Yaa”, the sky was obliterated by gargantuan wings, and I looked up and saw no Jens, for he was completely hidden by her wings. The thump of air was like a passing mortar shell………and Jens had had no idea at all how close he had come to being very seriously hurt. I could not believe that he had not seen her pass him as close as a few inches. He was still talking, reassuring me that he was all ears. That damned hair, I thought. That will be the end of him. She now sat malevolent next to her large chick, calling loudly at us. “Move Move” I urged and we scrambled up the last bit into the hide. “Umm Jens. You make tent here. OK”? I suggested, pointing hopefully at a postage stamp sized gibbet swinging wildly in the wind. “You go”? Asked a worried Jens. “Ummm”. Damned sure I do I thought in silence. “You come back”? “Umm” now what? “Oh sure”. I lied! “When”? “Tomorrow maybe the next day”? I left. I did have some intention of returning but I knew as I drove away that things just might not end up that way. I wasn’t trying to get rid of him, I just didn’t have the recourses to keep him at home or the time and expense to come back. On returning home with Holmes I got the Ethiopian carpet he had been sleeping on and washed it in the pools of rain water outside. (It stank for a good year afterwards. I am not joking in the least). My car broke down again, and to be honest I thought that if Jens could hang in the hide for a week or so he’d get an amazing experience and be better off than here at home. He was on his own, but he didn’t have to be that resourceful because the forest is literally in a suburban area where he could walk 5 minutes and find a matatu. Here the story falls to pieces because I cannot remember what sequence of events came first and I heard the first part from hearsay. What I do know is that weeks later I met Barbara Tyack outside her house that looks across onto the Ololua Forest and the nest. “I had to deal with that friend of yours that you abandoned here!” She said arms akimbo. “Huh. what friend?” “The weird guy that stunk to high heaven!!!!!!!” “Oh him!” “Yes he turned up bleeding and I had to take him in and patch him up and take him to hospital” It turned out that Jens was seen a day or so later wandering around asking strangers if they had seen me. None had and he had returned to the hide. A few days later he had been climbing up the tree when the female hit him in the face and knocked him off to go crashing through the under-storey to the ground. She had pushed his teeth through his gums and put a few deep holes in his head. On his way down the trees had broken his fall but had broken his arm too. That was about the only details I got. The matter had taken on legendary proportions, I was in the dog box and there was still some mystery as to the exact nature of his wounds. I of course was anxious not to be involved and vanished as fast as I could. I checked on the eagles and they were fine. The female looked a bit smug and that was all. From there the storey gets a bit hazy. Some months later I get a letter from him, and I got some amazing slides and a huge mounted photograph. The photograph I still hang in my living room to this very day. It has the male landing on the nest with food for the chick. One slide of his is exceptional. It shows the female flying over the forest canopy with a green branch in her mouth. Jens is a great photographer and he is not a bad sport. For example, he forgave me for being such a poor host and years later admitted that it was a good experience. Of a humorous post-script I met a year or so later Peter Robinson at Naivasha and he and his wife knew something I did not, for I felt a strange reserve in their attitude. Finally they could not conceal it. “We met that friend of yours…he turned up here ill and hungry and stank so much we had to force him to have a bath!!!!!!!” “You got him to have a bath???” said I. “It was that or he would have to stand outside all night and die of cold” said Peter. More years later and Jens wrote that he wanted to go to Uganda with a friend. I suggested he take a look at the Cassin’s Hawk Eagle. A nest had been recently seen in the Bwindi Forest and I was keen that we get some tough students out there looking. He had a possible idea of doing a degree and I even offered him some financial support that he turned down. I knew that he could do the job, as he had demonstrated grit and fortitude before. However it turned out that the nest belonged to a Black Sparrowhawk, and we never did get to the bottom of the Cassin’s record. Perhaps predictably given his hygiene record, they were both rushed to hospital to have Mango worms pulled from an unmentionable part of both their bodies. It was so bad an infestation that Jens reported that a volunteer nurse at the scene went green and had to leave the room. More years later and I hear from a lady friend who sat in a lecture in Copenhagen and there she heard Jens talk of Crowned Eagles, worms and Kenya.