Nick Trent records a rare sighting of the Cassin’s Hawk Eagle on Mt Kenya.
Mount Kenya, August 4, 2019 – The Cassin’s HawkEagle, formerly classified as , and more recently as , is a small but robustly built eagle. It is close in size to the Ayer’s Hawk Eagle and African Hawk Eagle, and can be easily mistaken for a Black Sparrowhawk.
The Cassin’s Hawk Eagle is a true forest species, hunting through the canopy in and out of dappled sunlight, using both the varied sky, foliage, and the dark and light of the forest to hunt its prey. Most of its habits are little known as it is an elusive bird. It is thought to be a hunter of tree squirrels and small to medium forest mammals. The Cassin’s Hawk Eagle, listed as rare to uncommon, and is generally associated with the rainforest of the Congo Basin from Nigeria to western Uganda, Liberia to Togo and more recently western Tanzania ( ).
In Kenya there have been few confirmed sightings to date: a juvenile specimen collected on Mt. Elgon in 1926; a vague record from 2001; a photograph of a juvenile from the Imenti Forest taken by Darcy Ogada in 2015; and the most recent sighting – an expected adult female observed, filmed and photographed by Nick Trent on August 4, 2019 while ascending the track through the sub-montane forest of the Chogoria Route on Mt. Kenya’s eastern slopes. This sighting has since been confirmed by Simon Thomsett, Rob Davies and Bill Clark ( ).
The sighting took place while driving down the road from the Chogoria Gate, mid-afternoon, on a clear sunny day. A large raptor flew out of the forest, low, down the road in front of the vehicle. “African Hawk Eagle’ was my immediate thought, thinking this was a bit high and densely forested to see one. The African Hawk Eagle is a powerful black and white eagle, normally associated with open woodland, drier thorn scrub at much lower altitude.
Fortunately, the bird settled on a branch above the road and remained there as the vehicle drew near. The tree in which it perched formed part of the mid-altitude forest, dense and green. This is the eastern rain-receiving side of Mt. Kenya, where the forest resembles typical Central Africa rainforest.
The eagle sat calmly, at first perching with legs tucked away out of sight. It strongly resembled a female adult Black Sparrowhawk but clearly the tail was too short for it to be a Black Sparrowhawk. Then suddenly there was bird song nearby and it became alert, turned around and stood on both feet, with head bobbing. Its spotted thigh and feathers-to-toes became fully visible. A Cassin’s Hawk Eagle resembling a mini Crowned Eagle, with a short middle toe for killing mammals (unlike the long middle toe of the Black Sparrowhawk which hunts birds) clearly visible.
This amazing eagle was calm and alert as I watched it. It perched unconcerned with leg raised, tucked out of sight. What a sight, and what a privilege to be able to watch it for five minutes of its secretive life. It clearly lives here, in this dense part of the Mt. Kenya Forest. I will be back to try and find her again.