Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Hiding and Watching in the Wind

At 4am this morning I climbed into my hide in the darkness, well before sunrise. Very strong winds during the last few days had blown it around a lot, pulling off some anchor ropes and tearing the camouflage away from the front. I spent some time readjusting everything, concealing every possible crack, and just as the first few bird calls began to welcome the dawn rays, I was ready. My friend Mike then helped me haul up camera gear, food and water, before walking down slope and driving away from the nest site, making any adult eagles watching think that the humans were leaving.

After an hour and some very pleasing observations of the eaglet walking around its nest, jumping up and flapping its fast-growing wings, a gentle breeze ruffled the roof of my hide. It didn’t take long for it to pick up and soon I was bobbing around like a cork on the high seas, making filming eagle behaviour very difficult to say the least. The eaglet didn’t mind and took advantage of a few gusts to launch herself higher with powerful wing-beats. Great flying practice!

Two hours passed since my stint began… then three. Then four. There was no sign of adult eagles returning, and I started to think they knew I was in there. My hopes of observing and capturing photos of Gidjee or Mulga with their satellite-tagged chick were fading. My legs were very uncomfortable, having been folded up on the 1m2 platform for so long. Not to mention my three backpacks which were taking up more than their fair share of room, but whose company was vital for this mission. Just as I was about to give up, the eaglet began looking skyward and giving a very loud, repetitive begging call. She had seen an adult approaching!
Two minutes later and I filmed as an adult eagle swooped in from the sky and landed on the nest, with a dismembered mammal trailing from its talons in the wind. I could see a transmitter – it was Gidjee! She glanced in my direction with a suspicious look, but got straight to work and hopped onto the nest with the mammal, which I could now see was a rabbit.

For 17 minutes she proceeded to tear up the rabbit, feed small pieces to her chick and eat parts of it herself. The wind continued to blow me around as I filmed, making the images very shaky, but at least the behaviour was being captured in some form. I also snapped lots of photos – this one is probably the best of the bunch:

As I later wrote in my diary, when something that was once only the small spark of an idea solidifies before your eyes as a moment of reality, the feeling is profound. The mental image of Gidjee, my female satellite-tagged Wedge-tailed Eagle, feeding her satellite-tagged 10 week-old chick, finally became real. It only took a day of hide construction, a bit of dehydration, a few early mornings and about 10 hours of sitting in a hide being blown around like a cork on the high seas to get there! I bet that rabbit tasted good :)

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Progressing Well

An afternoon visit to our eagle chick today revealed she is doing fine, and appears to have accepted her new PTT with no problems. Here you can see her sitting on the nest, with the transmitter and aerial just visible on her back (as shown by the arrows). A freshly killed rabbit was visible on the edge of the nest cavity indicating adult eagles are continuing to deliver prey. The rate of eaglet development never ceases to amaze me – it was only 2 days ago that I saw her but already more of the down feathers on her head have been replaced by juvenile feathers. In order to further monitor her progress and observe natural behaviour (flapping, preening, feeding, etc)  while ‘hidden’, we built a hide overlooking the nest site, completing the finishing touches of camouflage just on dusk. Over the next few days I will try and spend some time inside to further confirm the PTT is not restricting the eaglet’s development in any way. Watch this space!

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Juvenile Eagle Tagged!

The third transmitter has been deployed! We visited Gidjee and Mulga’s nest today and found their eaglet, now about 9 weeks old, peering down at us with that alert look that older nestlings often have. Her large skull and long bill confirmed she was a female. After a quick tree-climb using a ladder, I removed her from the nest, blinded her to minimise stress, and lowered her to my fantastic assistants, Mike Lohr and Mike Griffiths, on the ground. I then fitted another solar powered GPS/Satellite transmitter using the same harness used on adult eagles earlier this year. This took about 30 minutes, then it was time for some quick photos. My huge thanks to both Mikes for their invaluable help.

It was only after placing her back on the nest that the moment hit me – finally I had satellite tagged a juvenile eagle before it fledges! This was the main aim of this project when it began more than a year ago, but there were many rungs to climb first, including trialling the PTTs on more robust adults first. Now we will be able to determine the day the chick fledges, document her very first flight movements, and follow her journey afterwards. Where will she go on her first ever flight? How long will she depend on her parents for? And what direction will she travel after leaving ‘home’ next year? I can’t wait to find out!