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The brutal life of an African Fish Eagle: the tale of a catch and release... and eventual recapture.
Shiv Kapila — in East Africa Project    Share

Bulrush (as she later became known, for her tendency to rush into situations without thinking them through) was ready to go. Just desperate to go. She had been holed up in rehab after sustaining horrific injuries in a fight. After two weeks, and a massive dose of long lasting antibiotics, she felt it was time. Bulrush, by the way, is a big female African Fish Eagle.

She was rescued after being found on a public beach at Lake Naivasha after a fight with another eagle. She had come out of nowhere and tried to take over a territory. Some could say she deserved what she got - a talon through her eye socket and down through her throat. Her face had swelled up to the extent that she could not see, and therefore could not fly.

Attaching the transmitter. Photo by Sarah Higgins

I had arrived at Naivasha to conduct a Fish Eagle population and breeding survey at the time she was ready to be released. She was holed up at Sarah Higgins’ place whilst being treated by Simon Thomsett, one of the great raptor rehabbers, and Kenya’s foremost raptor expert.

I appeared at Sarah’s on a sunny afternoon to help Simon attach a radio transmitter to her back so she could be followed for a few days after release. This took an hour or so, and Bulrush was calm through the whole procedure. I think she could sense it was a necessary process that preceded her eventual freedom.

I was staying at Elsamere, a field study centre 20 km from Sarah’s, but close to where Bulrush was picked up. By this logic, I was to release and follow her that afternoon, so we gently paced her in a travel box, and the two of us were on our way.

Just as we boarded a boat to take us to the release site, a storm broke, and didn’t abate till dusk. The release had to be postponed-in these situations, its best to give the bird its best possible chance, and releasing her in the rain meant this wasn’t likely. Bulrush spent the night in the room next door to mine, safely tucked away in her box, which afforded her ample room to move round in-she was quite comfortable and didn’t complain.

Closeup of the transmitter. Photo by Sarah Higgins

The next morning, I carried her down to the boat where I met my usual boatman, Simon Kiare, and Tchagra, one of Bulrush’s rescuers and experienced guide from the Naivasha area. A volunteer for the day joined me: Jill Matthews, a Scottish conservationist - what a day she was going to have! For the couple of hours we made sure there was a territory that Bulrush could slot into, a territory missing a female eagle. This meant scouring the shoreline, talking to experienced boatmen, and waiting. Just as I felt we had a green light, something seemed wrong. We took the boat further out, only to spot a female eagle incubating right in the territory we were to release Bulrush in. Release postponed … again!

Checking for free territories close to where she was found. Photo by Jill Matthews.

After a brief consultation with Simon Thomsett, we believed the best course of action was to take her to Oloiden, a smaller, caustic lake that sits adjacent to Naivasha’s southern shores. There there were fewer eagles (just the one pair) and thousands of flamingoes for her to eat. After briefly showing the resident boatmen how to use the transmitter after a brief look around for other birds (they would be keeping tabs on her for the next few days) I let her fly. After a brief foray over the flamingo colony, she flew to an Acacia close by for a good preen. All was well. For an hour, Bulrush sat on her perch, seeming happy as Harry.

Giving the Oloidien boatmen an impromptu tutorial on how to use the receiver. Photo by Jill Matthews.

Release at Oloidien

Flying over towards the Acacias, transmitter clearly visible. Photo by Jill Matthews.

She takes off towards the main lake. Photo by Shiv Kapila.

She then took off, flying strongly and looking for thermals. She got to about 500 feet high, and headed towards the main lake, towards another 130 Fish Eagles that will defend their patches to the death.

This, if any, was a time to panic. We climbed into Tchagra’s car and sped back to Elsamere to catch a boat. We eventually tracked Bulrush to a hill, high above the Western side of the lake, calling incessantly, as if to check where she could slot in. She took off again after 15 minutes, heading to the Eastern shore at a remarkable speed and height, close to where she was found.

After recapture, battered and bruised and on the
way back to rehab. Photo by Jill Matthews

Following her in the boat at a steady but slow 20kph, we arrived in the nick of time to see her and another Eagle in a vicious fight. She had stumbled into the territory of the Eucalyptus Pair, two eagles that defended a 3 km stretch of shoreline filled with invasive Eucalyptus trees, useless for breeding. They seemed like the toughest pair of birds on the lake. Gripping each other’s talons, Bulrush and her opposite number cartwheeled and plummeted into the lake. Only one eagle flew off, and it wasn’t Bulrush. The signal went dead on the receiver and we all feared the worst: a dead signal meant the transmitter was immersed and the eagle was dead, lying at the bottom of the lake.

After 20 minutes, vainly searching for a signal, the receiver finally bleeped back into life. Somehow Bulrush had hauled herself out of the water and was recovering in a dense patch of Papyrus where we tracked her. After a brief debate concerning the dangers of Hippos and Buffalos that one could find in said patch of Papyrus, we set off on foot to find her. It took 45 minutes of slogging through Papyrus and Hyacinth tangles in waist high water to get a sight of her. As soon as she saw us, she took off-and promptly got into another fight.

We all sprinted out of the Papyrus (‘sprinted’ probably isn’t an accurate term, but we sped as fast as one could out of thick Papyrus!) and got onto the boat, only to find Bulrush, waterlogged, exhausted and hurt, swimming towards shore, right into the waiting talons of the Eucalyptus Pair. It was a matter of saving her, or watching her getting ripped to shreds.

It was quite a different situation to trapping Fish Eagles altogether where one foot is secured to the trap and the other can be grabbed quite safely. At this point, all of her nine pointy bits were free, and she didn’t seem like she was in the mood to be manhandled again. Jill and I took a few deep breaths and shoved our hands into the water-I managed to grab one foot, but Jill felt the full force of Bulrush’s wrath as she sunk a talon deep into her arm. Whilst I was temporarily distracted by this development and the need to help Jill, Bulrush managed to free her other foot from my grasp and wrapped her talons around all the fingers on my right hand. We were in the mercy of this feisty eagle. Seeing that her feet were now fully occupied with causing damage to her tormentors/lifesavers, I gently slipped the hood over her head and secured it. Now it was possible, with the help of Simon Kiare, to remove Bulrush’s talons from our limbs. It was clear that another attempt at release on Naivasha would not work, mainly due to the eagle getting herself into trouble, so I rang Simon to come and pick her up.

Bulrush looking happier in rehab at Sarah Higgins’ place.

Photo by Shiv Kapila.

At last, the ordeal was over-Simon Thomsett raced to Elsamere and picked up the injured eagle-she had sustained another talon through her throat, and another through her chest. Time for more rehab…

Bulrush had to have another heavy dose of antibiotics and is currently recovering in rehab at Sarah’s place. Lake Naivasha has too many eagles for her to quietly slip into a territory-with a rising water level and prey base, more transient eagles are coming in, vying for territories.

Our plan is to take her to Baringo next month, where she’ll be able to find a nice quiet island, and wait for a mate. Baringo is over one and a half times the size of Naivasha, but has only 20 Fish Eagles.

This incident only goes to show how much trouble these birds have to endure in order to fulfill their innate ambition to breed. All the more remarkable is that there are a handful of birds at Lake Naivasha, captured and rung by Dr. Munir Virani of the Peregrine Fund in the mid 1990s, that are still around and at least 23 years old.

Eagles fighting over Elsamere. Photo by Shiv Kapila

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