Where ea­gle watch­ers dare (on a wing and a prayer)

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

It is mid-morn­ing d-morn­ing in Dar­ién Na­tional Park, Panama, a, and I’m wilt­ing g in the rain­for­est est heat. Three hree hours ago, with th the ram­shackle bor­der town of Yav­iza still asleep, we boarded our mo­torised dugout and nudged out into o the swift, dark cur­rent. rent. Now the hu­mid air hums with in­sects and sweat trick­les down n my back.

Sud­denly a flurry y of wing beats has us peer­ing up into the canopy. And there she is: a fe­male le harpy ea­gle, perched high h in the al­men­dro tree, sig­na­ture na­ture crest de­fi­antly erect. A life­less fe­less sloth dan­gles from meat-hook hook talons as large as a tiger’s. She’s an awe­some sight: a fit­ting tting na­tional bird for Panama. At t her chick’s plain­tive cheeps, she he starts to tear at the un­for­tu­nate prey. ey. Only now do I dare raise my cam­era. ra.

There is some­thing ng ir­re­sistibly al­lur­ing about ea­gles, es, as I found while re­search­ing my lat­est book (see panel). It’s that preda­tory power, the im­pe­ri­ous glare, those mag­nif­i­cent wings lift­ing them high and be­yond our reach. They are, in a way, the avian equiv­a­lent of big cats, and it is small won­der that they have so long served as icons of pride and mil­i­tary might, from the Ro­man le­gions to the United States air force. The golden ea­gle alone is the na­tional em­blem of five na­tions. For the trav­eller, ea­gles also mean ex­cit­ing places. These birds’ ba­sic needs – large tracts of un­spoilt land, with plen­ti­ful prey and few hu­man threats – mean that if watch­ing one, you are some­where pretty im­pres­sive. My ea­gle mem­o­ries are in­sep­a­ra­ble from their lo­ca­tions: an African fish ea­gle pluck­ing a bream from be­side my ca­noe on the serene Zam­bezi; wedge-tailed ea­gles comb­ing the red-rock canyons of Aus­tralia’s North­ern Ter­ri­tory; a gi­ant Steller’s sea ea­gle cir­cling my Zo­diac against Kam­chatka’s snow-capped vol­ca­noes. Each new sight­ing brings the same thrill: the bird seems the very em­bod­i­ment of the wilder­ness it in­hab­its, with the power of life and death clutched in its talons.

That power felt es­pe­cially in­tim­i­dat­ing when, ear­lier this year, I met the tra­di­tional Kazakh ea­gle hun­ters of west­ern Mon­go­lia – the world’s only com­mu­nity still to hunt us­ing golden ea­gles.

When one hunter slipped the leather gaunt­let on to my arm and bade his ea­gle hop over, I felt for my­self the force in those skull- crush­ing talons. This bird had, af­ter all, dis­patched the very foxes whose pelts made up my host’s hat. The good news for the Bri­tish ea­gle en­thu­si­ast is that we have two of the world’s most im­pres­sive on our own shores. In the wilds of Wester Ross, I’ve seen golden ea­gles – the self-same species – quar­ter the heather in search of hares, and white-tailed ea­gles soar­ing over the lonely head­lands. Mean­while, a hop over the Chan­nel brings more: rare Span­ish im­pe­rial ea­gles hunt­ing the wood­land wood­lands of An­dalu­cia; short-toed ea­gles hov­er­ing over the hill­sides of Provenc Provence. World­wide, the va­ri­ety is im­pres­sive. And size isn’t eve ev­ery­thing: al­though the largest ea­gles h have 8ft wing­spans and can kill a deer, dee there are many smaller species: tak take Africa’s long-crested ea­gle, which am am­bushes rats in the grass, or Aus­tralia’s lit lit­tle ea­gle, which snatc snatches birds, fal­con­fal­con-like, from the air. Each feed feed­ing niche has its ea­gle: som some spe spe­cialise in mon mon­keys; othe oth­ers, snak snakes; many scot scotch our imag im­age of the nobl no­ble hunter by tu tuck­ing into car­rio car­rion whene when­ever they get the chance. Sadl Sadly, de­spite all that “iconic” stuff, ea ea­gles do not insp in­spire ev­ery­bod every­body. Like pre preda­tors of all kinds, ma many still find them­selv them­selves at the wrong end of a shot­gun or poi­soned bait bait, per­se­cuted for their the al­leged pre­da­tion on livesto live­stock. Mean­while, their perch at the top of the food chain leaves the them first to suf­fer as habi­tats de­grade, w with rar­i­ties such as the formidab for­mi­da­ble Philip­pine ea­gle bat­tling to sur­vive as their forests dis­ap­pear dis­ap­pear. To­day many of the world’s 78 species are un­der threat. All t the more rea­son, then, to vis visit ea­gle coun­try. With luc luck, your pres­ence may h help con­vince its c cus­to­di­ans of just why t these birds are s so im­por­tan im­por­tant. Ei­ther way, you you’ll come back with wit some stir­ring sight­ings and a head­ful he of wilderne wilder­ness. Track down the rare and for­mi­da­ble harpy ea­gle, plus a range of other rain­for­est wildlife, in Panama’s Dar­ién Gap. Na­ture­trek (na­ture­trek. co.uk) of­fers a Panama – Harpy Ea­gle Spe­cial from £2,795 per per­son (two shar­ing), in­clud­ing flights, food and ac­com­mo­da­tion, with five nights at the Canopy Tented Camp, and the ser­vices of ex­pert lo­cal guides. De­parts April 20 and May 18 2019. Visit the Berkutchy ea­gle hun­ters of West­ern Mon­go­lia, with their trained golden ea­gles, find other wildlife, in­clud­ing the en­dan­gered Prze­wal­ski’s horse, and ex­pe­ri­ence no­madic lo­cal cul­ture. Steppes Travel (01285 601050; steppes­travel.com) of­fers a 13-day pi­o­neer­ing group tour to Mon­go­lia for £5,995 per per­son (two shar­ing), in­clud­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion, trans­fers and some meals. In­ter­na­tional flights will cost ex­tra. See the world’s largest ea­gle off the coast of Rus­sia’s far east, along with whales, bears and vol­ca­noes. Wild­foot (0800 195 3385; wild­foot­travel. com) of­fers a 12-night Jewel of the Rus­sian Far East cruise aboard the Spirit of En­derby, depart­ing in Septem­ber 2019 from £5,293 per per­son (two shar­ing). Does not in­clude in­ter­na­tional flights or land­ing fees. See – and hear – the African fish ea­gles of the Zam­bezi river, plus an abun­dance of big game and the mighty Vic­to­ria Falls. Rain­bow Tours (020 7666 1250; rain­bow­tours. co.uk) of­fers a Zam­bezi Sa­fari Ad­ven­ture from £3,700 per per­son. Price – valid from Jan 1 to March 31 2019; two shar­ing – in­cludes nine nights’ full-board ac­com­mo­da­tion, all in­ter­na­tional and in­ter­nal flights as well as trans­fers and all ac­tiv­i­ties. Ex­plore the wild north­west coast of Scot­land in search of our two types of ea­gle, plus other lo­cal wildlife. Wilder­ness Scot­land (01479 898707; wilder­nesss­cot­land.com) of­fers Wildlife Ad­ven­tures – The Scot­tish High­lands for £1,725 per per­son shar­ing, in­clud­ing six nights’ ac­com­mo­da­tion (B&B), some meals, all trans­port, boat trips and sched­uled ac­tiv­i­ties. De­par­tures in 2019: May 25 and June 8.

The Em­pire of the Ea­gle by Mike Unwin is pub­lished by Yale Univer­sity Press (RRP £30). To or­der your copy for £25 call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.tele­graph. co.uk. The book cov­ers all the world’s 78 ea­gle species, with pho­to­graphs by David Ti­pling.

South­ern banded snake ea­gles bat­tle it out for a tree­top perch at the Phinda Game Re­serve, South Africa, right; a harpy ea­gle, the na­tional bird of Panama, left Sun­rise at Dar­ién Na­tional Park in Panama, home of the harpy ea­gle

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