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