The Harpy Eagle – King of the Canopy

The Harpy Eagle – King of the Canopy

After a couple of blogs when I focused on the new Prince of Rainforests, this time I am going to take you deep into the rainforest itself and introduce you to the King of the Canopy – the Harpy Eagle.
I saw my first Harpy Eagle just after dawn on the 24th April 1995 at the La Selva Lodge on the Rio Napo river in Eastern Ecuador.
The previous day, with my mate Tim Key, I had been driven from Ecuador’s sky-high, white capital, Quito, down the spectacular eastern slope of the Andes to Coca, a frontier town on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, for all the world like something out of the Wild West.
Coca’s streets were glutinous black, a churned up mixture of crude oil and red Amazon mud, lined with ramshackle wooden buildings and rather menacing, gun-slinging locals, lounging in doorways. My old granny would have turned in her grave if she’d seen me there!
The Rio Napo, one of the Amazon’s massive tributaries, swirled past Coca’s waterfront.
We embarked on a narrow wooden river boat with a big outboard on the back for the 70 kilometer trip down river to La Selva Lodge. By the way, if we’d gone about 70 kilometers upstream, we would have been sliding between the forest-covered banks of the Second International Children’s Rainforest Reserve at Jatun Sacha, largely purchased and preserved by the International Children’s Tropical Forest charity network.
Dawn the next day saw us tramping along a forest trail with our diminutive Quichua Indian guide, Oscar, towards La Selva’s canopy tower, basically a wooden staircase built round a huge sabre tree with an observation platform about 30 metres up.
When we finally walked out onto the platform, we suddenly had a breathtaking view from horizon to horizon out across the top of the Amazon rainforest, a vast expanse of billowing green clouds. First instinct of a birdwatcher. Raise binoculars to eyes and scan! I did.
Just thirty yards away, a spectacular Blue-throated Piping-Guan was perched on the very topmost branch of a tree..
I shifted the binoculars to the far horizon and instantly saw something which looked like two large blankets flapping furiously on a very thick washing line. Dangling from below this vision was a monkey, writhing desperately like a murderer at the end of a hangman’s rope.
I shouted to Oscar and pointed to the horizon and, after a split second’s glance, he shouted back to us – Harpy Eagle! We watched as Harpy, with monkey, flapped slowly away and was lost in the greens of the canopy.
And then something else rather extraordinary happened! Oscar, on our relatively brief acquaintance with him, had seemed phlegmatic in the extreme. But now, suddenly, he erupted into a whooping war dance round and round the platform, shaking our hands, grinning from ear to ear and finally telling us that this was only the second ever sighting of a Harpy Eagle from the La Selva canopy tower.
So the Harpy Eagle is a rare, impressive and exciting bird of prey. It is one of the world’s largest and most powerful eagles, vying only with the Philippine Eagle for the top spot.
But, of course, the bigger they are the more room they need and a pair of Harpies needs up to 20 square miles of, preferably, pristine virgin lowland rainforest to survive and raise a family. They are found from South-eastern Mexico to Northern Argentina and Southern Brazil, a huge area taking in the whole of the Amazon basin but with this forest now being ferociously fragmented they are endangered birds indeed.

The Harpy stands over three feet tall, with massively thick legs and toes covered by wrinkled, pinkish yellow skin. It grips tree branches (and its hapless prey!) with wickedly curved grey talons up to the size of a grizzly bear’s claws. Its huge round owl-like face, a circular rosette of pale grey feathers is topped by a few long grey feathers sticking out at odd angles like an Indian brave’s headdress.
It’s built like a huge sparrowhawk – relatively short wings (but still spanning over six feet) and a relatively long tail – and like the sparrowhawk is adapted for hunting fast and large prey inside the canopy. Our monkey was a typical meal, along with sloths (not actually fast, of course, – there’s an exception to every rule), opossums, reptiles and birds.
For such a big bird, Harpies are highly maneuverable fliers and strike their (terrified!) prey after a (normally) rapid pursuit through the trees. They can fly with prey weighing up to about half of their own (10 – 20lb) body weight. If the victim is heavier, it will be carved up at the kill and brought in pieces to the nest if young are being fed. As with the sparrowhawk tribe generally, the female can be as much as twice as heavy as her mate.
I saw my second Harpy Eagle about mid-morning on the 4th March 2005 in the Imataca Forest in Eastern Venezuela, almost exactly ten years after the first one!
After a long trek along an active logging road, with an intrepid group of holidaying??? birdwatchers, we came to a huge emergent forest giant right by the side of the road – except it wasn’t emerging from anything any more because the trees surrounding it had all been cut down. These dominant forest trees like sabres, mahoganies and kapoks, frequently have a natural flat platform where the branches spread out from the main trunk at a height of anything from 80 to 180 feet. On such a platform our Imataca Harpies had chosen to nest.
And there, sitting calmly in its 5 feet wide eyrie was an enormous, pure white Harpy chick with its black and white Indian brave feathers waving around on the top of its head. It was photographed about 1,000 times while we waited for two hours for the thrilling possibility of an adult visiting the nest. Meanwhile, the logging wagons thundered past.
We waited in vain! The chick was over two months old and the female had already joined the male in hunting for prey to feed this giant baby. It was being fed every two to three days so it was hardly surprising that we were out of luck.
So what had happened in the previous four months or so. Well, first the female laid one or two eggs. After the first egg hatched 53 to 58 days later (the longest known incubation period amongst all birds of prey), the other egg was probably ignored and didn’t hatch. Our chick was then guarded by the female for just over two months and mother and baby were fed by dad during all this time. While brooding the eggs, the female got just one meal a week! (Even my old granny, keeping a family on 10 bob a week during the war would have thought this was a bit spartan!). After her chick hatched, mother and babe got a meal every three to four days.
Perhaps three months after we left (if nobody had cut its tree down) our chick made its first aerial sallies but would still be dependent on its parents for another 8 to 10 months after that. It would not start to breed itself for another 6 to 8 years. And its parents would only breed every two years or so.
Hence the Harpies survival problem in the modern world of mechanised logging and piecemeal slash and burn. Not only is its habitat being fragmented or decimated but it is not able to recover the losses because of its low reproduction rate. In the long run, it will only survive if it is possible to protect large tracts of lowland or foothill rainforest in the Neotropics.
But let us finish on a note of optimism. My third (and most recent) sighting of a Harpy Eagle was about midday on the 15th April 2006 as Tim and I were sailing down the romantically named Rio Madre de Dios on our way to the world famous Manu Wildlife Centre in Amazonian Peru. An adult, with its black breast band standing out against pure white lower underparts (with a few black spots), hung hugely only 30 feet above our little riverboat – far and away the closest view we had enjoyed of this magnificent bird. Long may it remain the King of the Canopy!

Next time: On November 4th, I am going to Rio Cristallino Lodge, on the southern edge of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, with 200,000 hectares of undisturbed forest stretching to the north of it. I am hoping to record some experiences direct from there – but don’t hold your breath. Technical incompetence and/or lack of an Internet link might make it wait till my return.
After that, we must examine some massive rainforest preservation initiatives featuring the following cast: Norway, Guyana, the Republic of Congo and that well-known saviour of the whole world, Gordon Brown. Prince Charles might sneak in again somewhere as well.

We used the picture for the Harpy Eagle by kind permission from Ricardo Kuehn, here is his amazing Flickr photostream, prepared to be amazed.

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This post was written by:

Roge - who has written 10 posts on Children's Tropical Forests.


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One Response to “The Harpy Eagle – King of the Canopy”

  1. Tim Key Says:

    Hi Rog

    Enjoyed the account of the encounters with the Harpy Eagles; as you say, one of the special birds of the world, and a bird that can be targetted by habitat conservation. The origin of the name “Harpy” might be of interest, if not very politically correct. In Greek mythology a Harpy was a ravenous creature with a woman’s head and trunk and a bird’s wings and claws. Harpies were, then, cruel grasping women; the verb is harpazein, to snatch. So what Rog saw from his tree platform in Ecuador was just that – a huge bird snatching a monkey from the trees. And now I read that you are in the Brazilian rainforest on a birdwatching trip, lucky thing. Hope the eagles land!

    Cheers.

    Tim Key

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