On Wednesday the 28th of August, Vero’s left us for a new life in northern Kenya. Toby Dunn landed on the dusty strip near my house and Mwanzia, Jonathan and I loaded Vero’s into the back in a huge box. When he took off, Jonathan and Mwanzia silently watched the plane go until it was out of sight as I drove fast beneath it. I was fighting back tears.
Vero’s is a Verreaux’s Eagle, one of Africa’s three largest eagles. She is a true eagle, belonging to the Aquila group. The Golden Eagle of USA, Eurasia and Japan, the Steppe Eagle of Russia and China, the Tawny Eagle of Africa and India, and the Wedged tail Eagle of Australia, belong to this group. They are patchily distributed from Israel and Arabia, through to Chad and down eastern Africa into South Africa. That part of Africa shattered by the Great Rift Valley produced the habitat most favoured by this specialized eagle.
They are slope soarers without comparison. Their wings look like paddles, starting at the base shallow and broadening as it reaches the last 1/3rd then it tapers off to a sharp tip. In howling winds that would force a Peregrine to perch, they hold stationary sentinel over their rocky territory.
They are Rock Hyrax specialists. But while this may be true in some of their range, it is not the case in Kenya. Cliff environs harbour an array of different animals adapted to the epiphyte growth and tough scree terrain. The hyrax is of course at home here, but so are Klipspringers, large voles, mongoose, genet cats, hares and specific game birds. Such habitats also have thicket-dwelling animals like Dik Dik, bushbuck and duiker. All these are within the prey range of a Verreaux’s Eagle.
Vero’s comes from Lukenya hill, only a few kilometers from my former house. Each weekend, the hill is visited by rock climbers who own it. Each weekend, the raptors that live there are inevitably disturbed. While the Mt Club of Kenya has many members who minimize their impact on the cliffs, there is always the potential for disturbance. There had been repeated nesting failures of Verreaux’s, Lanner Falcons and Peregrine Falcons. I am never very good with people and cannot understand the need to climb a cliff for no very good reason. There is an element of machismo in the sport that may lead to ignoring everything but the task in hand. I have seen climbers being repeatedly dive bombed by distraught Lanners defending their tiny chicks. None bothered to question why. When informed one climber said so what, they owned the hill.
A few years prior to 1995, I experimented with “Abel rescue”. I had done so with Crowned Eagle and Augur Buzzards many years previously and saw the need to include climbers and students. It would be a good way for all of us to do good and create awareness. Most eagles (and Lammergeyers) lay two eggs, 3-9 days apart. They hatch asynchronously with one being very much more robust than the other. The larger individual will almost invariably kill the younger sibling. The younger sibling has a miniscule chance and that is to kill its old sibling. Only one chick survives. Cain killed his younger brother Abel, and the act of this siblicide use to be called “Cainism”. If you take one chick away immediately at the hatch of the second chick, you can raise it in captivity, and produce twice as many as otherwise would be the case. But the hand-raised chick you kept would be a human imprint. A permanent muddle, who will first take you as its parent, and when mature will try to copulate with you. Not good. Imprints can also be very aggressive towards whoever and whatever they think is competition. This may be a person, a dog or even a particular car. They can never be released into the wild. They may be befriended by a member of their species, but they will do their best to kill and eat it. Many rehabers forget or overlook this problem, raising lions for example that are mentally unable to adapt and be released.
When it comes to Abel rescue, I developed a technique that made sense but was physically demanding. Raise the chick in captivity for 10 days, take it back to its parents, swap it with the “wild” sibling. Take the “wild” one back. Raise that for 10 days. Take that back. ETC. Do this until they are 8 weeks old when they are large and nearly ready to fledge. Put them together and although they fight, they are equal combatants.
On two occasions I had the pleasure of seeing two young Verreaux’s flying around after their parents, and this raised awareness and concern among the rock climbers. I was later able to use this technique with one of the world’s rarest raptors, the Madagascar Fish Eagle.
In 1995, I was helped by a Mt Club member and his girlfriend. But when I went to put the eaglet into the nest at 8 weeks, I found that the nest was partly collapsed, two brand new carabiners were clipped one meter above the nest platform and the chick was not there. I concluded that rock climbers had stood on the nest, and the chick fell to its death. This was not the first time.
Vero’s 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.
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.