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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
A Rare Glimpse of a Papua New Guinea Harpy Eagle
Martin Gilbert — in Asia-Pacific    Share
The cloud forests of Papua New Guinea are rather ‘other worldly’ at the best of times, yet at 4 am they seem infinitely more alien. Cunningly, I had slept in my clothes, thus avoiding one of the hurdles of rising in the cold and dew of pre-dawn! In the blackness I fumbled at the laces of my dank boots and tried not to wake my snoring companions curled beneath their blankets. The forest was strangely silent, far removed from the choral strains of the frogs and insects that had sung me to sleep. Even the winking fire flies had snuffed out their lanterns and seemed to have vanished. A light mist was falling, adding a new layer of dampness to my skin as I stepped out from the shelter of our bush camp tarpaulin.

Gingerly, I set out along the overgrown track that climbed the ridge to the Harpy Eagle nest. Only the sphere lit by my headlamp seemed real (and then only just), the occasional squeaks and rustlings from the dark undergrowth always out of reach. I had climbed this trail daily for two weeks, yet at this time of day was robbed of the familiar landmarks and I struggled to make out my footprints through the mud and mulch. A vine twitched, and I raised my lamp with a start. A pair of yellow sequin eyes blinked back at me. A black and white Mountain Cuscus (a kind of tree-dwelling marsupial) peered at me, his tail coiled spring-like along a creeper. With his characteristic measured and unhurried gait, he made off up into the darkness.

In my disorientated state I almost overshot my mark. Finding a rope in the net of branches, leaves, vines and creepers is no easy task, and I quietly thanked myself for using a rope striped in purple and blue! Glancing at my watch, it was almost five; I had no time to lose. An owl called a double hoot somewhere close-by. Like so many birds of this region the owls are little known, and this was a species I had not heard before. But there was no time for distractions however new and interesting. I checked and double checked my climbing harnesses and equipment, and clipping a pair of ascenders onto the rope began to climb. As I spiraled upward through the midstorey to the canopy, the sky was beginning to lose some of its blackness, but still a few stars peeked out between the clouds.

My hide had taken the best part of two weeks to build. Harpy Eagles are extremely shy, and I had worked gradually to avoid alarming them so close to their nest. It was rather a rough construction, built from materials scavenged from my equipment, the village and of course the forest itself. A torn plastic sheet lashed between three mossy limbs would keep the worst of the rain off me, and a net woven with ferns made a reasonable blind, shielding me from the eagles’ favourite perches. It suited my purposes but was hardly pretty, and certainly wouldn’t win any architectural prizes!!

Dangling in the darkness I climbed steadily, inching my way a foot at a time up the 85 feet of rope to my hide. Mounting the branch was never easy; as wide as a barrel, and hung with a tangle of trailing epiphyte roots. I struggled for a secure grip and hauled myself up with all the elegance of a Russian weightlifter. But at least I was up. I clipped myself onto the tree, and set to arranging my equipment in the branches. The thick bed of moss that hugged the crook of my branch provided a surprisingly comfortable perch. I hunkered down, sipping cold and sweet coffee, sitting quiet and waiting for the day.

The dawn chorus began with a twitter, subtly increasing in volume as one by one other voices joined the song. The tinkling jingle of the fantail blending into the scratchy notes of the honeyeater and the plaintive berry pecker until the whole forest was alive with sound. A faint powdery blue appeared from nowhere lifting the trees from the shadows and returning their shape. The condensing breath of the forest lifted and curled as mist swimming through the crowns of orchid and moss beards. The transformation from night to day lasted only a few minutes, but seemed to arrive with imperceptible slowness.

Far on the opposite ridge a booming and resonant “Gulp” signaled the arrival of the first Harpy. Likened to the sound of a hunters’ bowstring, their call is so deep that from a distance it almost seems beyond hearing. Then behind me, a second –or was it an echo? - I couldn’t be sure. I strained to get a bearing, but could see nothing but trees. First one, then the other; a call and a reply. But I was not alone in noting the arrival of the adults. Across the clearing, not 15m away the ghostly white form of the juvenile Harpy alighted without fuss.

My breathe caught in my throat. I had seen the Harpy Eagles many times now. For hours at a time I had watched the youngster testing his wings from the distant ridgeline far across the drainage. Time and again I had seen him take flight against the sky while I was marooned on the forest floor 90 feet below – but none of that could compare to this. Now I was in his element, and hidden in my blind he seemed completely unaware of me peering across at him. He stood perfectly framed in branches cracked in grey, and blotched with lichen. Moss hung thick and purple, against a backdrop of fresh leaves lit in a soft red and lustrous green. Carefully I lifted my camera, steadying myself and praying that the sun would hurry up and clear the ridge!

Perhaps only five months of age, he already held himself with a relaxed air of confidence, hinting at the dominant place he would soon take in his world. One moment idle and indulgent, and the next sharp and alert. A talon rose to scratch lazily behind his ear, folded into a tight fist and submerged itself in the luxuriant softness of his white belly feathers. A pair of parrots careered through the midstorey below us, slaloming through the clearing at incredible speeds; a shriek of green and red. His tawny eyes were on them in an instant, his head bobbing in pursuit of their course – flashes of colour, speed and sound against the gentle backdrop of the waking forest. His great broad head swiveled sharply, catching the flash of an impossibly scarlet honeyeater working the foliage behind him. All the while his parents continued their booming cries across the valley.

The light was growing by the second. Carefully, ever so slowly I opened my knife and cut a hole in the edge of the netting that made up my blind; the bird didn’t flinch. Then all at once everything came together. The rising sun cleared the eastern ridgeline, bringing the forest to life and picking the outline of his feathers like a halo. He stretched out his wing, and fanned his tail, the backlight catching the delicate barring of his flight feathers. Fingers of mist caressed at the white feathers of his flank and belly, lifting them as if made of air. I sat shivering, part with cold, but more with excitement trying desperately to hold my camera steady as I fired off the shutter.

Immature Harpy Eagle calls to its parents
Immature Harpy Eagle calls to its parents
Despite his assertive posture, he was still very much a baby, and totally dependant on his parents for food. He leant forward, and shook himself, raising the ruff of feathers that rimmed his head, and with an indignant “Cluck!” announced that he was ready for his breakfast! By now I had already fired off an entire roll of film, and was fumbling to load a second. Hardly able to believe my eyes the youngster opened his broad wings and flew to a perch on a horizontal branch not 5m from my position. He now sat right out in the open, his tactic obvious: “Hear me! See me! Feed me!”

The bird appeared completely oblivious to me, but it seemed my presence had not gone entirely unnoticed: a squadron of mosquitoes whined in my ears and an early sweat bee investigated my nostril, mining for moisture and salt! My legs were now cramping rather badly, but I dared not move; the bird was so close and I couldn’t risk alarming it now. Its’ cries were becoming more insistent, a steady “Cluck, Clu-Cluck” echoing across the drainage. I held myself poised. There was a promise of more in the air, and I crouched, waiting and tried to ignore the attentions of the insects.

All at once there was a change in the air and I knew I was now in the presence of the adult. It remained silent, and I could see nothing, but somewhere above the plastic sheeting and fern thatch I knew it was there, and close. The effect on the juvenile was electric. Standing on surprisingly gangly legs, with his long tail bouncing for balance he ran along the branch calling loudly. He made an unsteady leap, posing for a moment at the edge of the nest tree, his eyes fixed somewhere above me. My camera whirred, the shutter firing repeatedly; that was the shot I wanted. Then in an instant it was over. The juvenile looked crestfallen, his cries petered to an afterthought – you could almost taste his disappointment – the adult it seemed, had gone. The youngster stood forlorn and deflated, I snatched a last few shots before he too took flight, his calls fading down the valley in pursuit of his parent.

Martin Gilbert with local friends
Martin Gilbert with local friends
For several minutes I sat trembling, struggling to grasp all that I had seen. The New Guinea Harpy Eagle is a bird that few people can claim even to have set eyes on, let alone through the viewfinder of their camera. Even local hunters encounter the bird infrequently. The exhilaration of the moment flooded through me like a wave, my head was humming, and I fought to suppress the shout of joy that tugged in my throat! Everything had fallen into place at once, the setting had been magical, and the lighting unreal. Suddenly it was all worth it. Days spent hiking through the punishing terrain, enduring the attentions of the sweat bees and being pounded for hours at a time by relentless showers of rain. In a moment my trip had been made worthwhile, gone were the uncertainties of work with this most tricky of species, the discomfort of waking on the forest floor, and the musty dampness of your cleanest pair of socks! Every moment was now worthwhile, and I would gladly do it all and more for the privilege of sharing another morning in the domain of the New Guinea Harpy Eagle.

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