Monday, 12 December 2016

Meet Malya

After a long drive out from Perth to Matuwa yesterday and a few hours sleep, it was exciting to wake up before sunrise and head out to a Walluwurru / Wedge-tailed Eagle nest that caretaker Bruce Withnell had kindly been keeping an eye on for me. I last visited it during the research trip in October with Martu women and volunteers to band a month-old nestling, pictured above, who had been well fed on a recently caught Paarnka / Yellow-spotted Monitor (Varanus panoptes).

Bruce and I, along with my friend David Ryder who generously provided a vehicle for the trip, and fellow ornithologists Tegan Douglas and Neil Hamilton, got to the nest just as the clouds were turning gold in the morning rays, and we were thrilled to see a large eaglet perched on a branch just above the nest. As I scaled the tree to capture the juvenile eagle, which, as Bruce had reported over the past few weeks, was now fully feathered and close to fledging, it launched and sailed on a short glide to the ground. Neil managed to secure it quickly, and carefully holding the talons, calmly carried it back to below the nest, where we had our get set up.

With Neil holding the bird, I set about attaching a satellite-transmitter to it's back. It is always wonderful seeing juvenile eagles up close, an experience that allows one to observe the detail on their beautiful faces. As with many of the Matuwa-born eagles I've observed in the past 5 years, this one had quite reddish plumage. Some eaglets I've seen in the Perth Hills are similar in colour, while others have quite blonde feathers, particularly on the nape. Such variation is yet another fascinating and intriguing feature of these magnificent birds. 

With PTT sitting perfectly between the shoulder blades, the eagle is ready to be returned to his nest.

When close to fledging at approximately 80 days of age, it is normally very easy to tell the sex of eagle nestlings, with females being noticeably larger, having a broad footspan and being longer in the skull. However, this bird had a complex combination - it's footspan was tiny and very 'male-sized', but the head appeared to be extremely elongated, like a female. Taking the weight and overall appearance into consideration, my feeling is that this bird is a male, but we will be able to confirm the sex using DNA from the feather sample taken. While this research is primarily focused on movement ecology, we are recording morphometrics of all birds handled, which will also broaden current knowledge of the size variation in eagle nestlings of each sex (most previous research on wedge-tails has focused on full-grown immature or adult birds). 

With harness attached, it was time to put the eagle back.

To ensure he did not become unnecessarily spooked by my presence, I descended the tree straight after placing the young eagle gently back on the eyrie, and it was wonderful to watch him confidently hop back up and onto the limb on which he was perching when we arrived.

The next morning, David and I revisited the nest site to check on the newest member of the eagle-tracking family, and found the eyrie was empty. He had fledged! It felt very exciting to know we had tagged this eagle just in time to accompany him on the start of a remarkable journey!

On the way back to Perth, we called in to Wiluna Remote Community School where I was excited to catch up with teacher Debbie and many of the children who came to Matuwa during our research trip back in October. I was keen to give them all an update on the recent tagging adventure, and ask the children if they would like to name the eagle we'd just sat-tagged. After a short talk I left an image of the bird on the screen, and one of the girls instantly said the world 'Malya', which she told me means 'cool' or 'awesome' in Martu. Debbie and the class had a quick chat amongst themselves and with Rita Cutter, a Martu elder, and all agreed this was the perfect name. So, welcome Malya! We are excited to be flying with you, high above Martu Country.

Celebrating the naming of Malya with Rita Cutter (centre) and children from the Wiluna School.

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