I visited Costa Rica in July 2014 together with my wife for bird photography. I had an expectation of sighting the largest and most powerful eagle on the animal planet, the mighty Harpy Eagle (HAE). It is also known as “Haribon” which means King of Birds, so called because it has a mane like a lion, which is regarded as the king of land based animals. Although we were able spot many bird species on that trip, we did not have any sightings of my main interest. According to the bird guides I met there, there had not been any HAE sightings for years in the wild, in that region. The Harpy’s natural habitat is the tropical lowland rainforests of Central and South America. Since then I have been googling on the Internet for information of possible sighting of the Harpy Eagle in the wild.
In November last year, I received an email from a bird guide named Giuliano, from Cuiaba in Brazil of a sighting of a Harpy, nesting on a tree in Barra do Bugro, in the state of Mato Grosso. I was thrilled to hear the news. Harpy Eagles lay a maximum of two eggs and procreate only once every 4 to 5 years. According to him a visit to Brazil in February/March would be the best since the chicks would be at least three months when they would emerge from the nest. I had already planned another safari to see Killer Whales with Sea Lions in action in Argentina during this period, and the timing was perfect to visit Brazil en route to Argentina.
I kept in constant touch with Giuliano until my arrival in Cuiaba, checking on the activity at the bird nest of the Harpy. Ben, assistant to Giuliano accompanied me to Barra do Bugro, a two hours’ drive from Cuiaba airport, where we planned to stay four nights at a local lodge. Ben mentioned that there had been no activity at the nest for a week. I was worried. We spent two full days at the nest and I was disappointed to find out that the nest had been abandoned by the mother. Tania, a senior researcher attached to the Brazilian Harpy Eagle Conservation program, whom I met at the site during our stay there, confirmed that the HAE would have left the nest since the chicks had not survived. Generally, nests are reused for many years.
Due to my keen interest on Harpy Eagles, Tania suggested that I should visit Manaus in July 2015 to attend the International Bird Congress which was scheduled to be held from July 19 to 24. There was an active nest in that area where one chick had survived, monitored by her department and I could visit the site during the congress, as arranged by its organizers. I confirmed to her of my visit to Manaus in July. Further, in April I came to know of another active nest in Brazil located in Carajas. Tania confirmed in June that there was one surviving chick at this site too and she will arrange her colleague Filho in Carajas, to help me visit the nest after the congress. This is the only site with a built up platform in Brazil.
As planned, I arrived in Manaus International airport via São Paulo in Brazil at midnight on 18th July. On the following morning, as scheduled Tania accompanied four of us including a bird photographer from South Africa to the Harpies site. It took us an hour by road to reach the research station at the Reserve Adolpho Ducke followed by 500 meter walk in to the forest where the nest was located at 30 meters above ground on a tall tree. According to Tania, the juvenile is a 5 month old male weighing approximately 3.5 kgs. An adult male weighs around 4.5 to 5 kgs but the female is almost twice the weight of the male. When the juvenile is five months old, it can fly but would stay within a radius of about 500 meters around the nest until the mother is ready take the juvenile for hunting. We waited for almost two hours for a sighting of the Harpy, but returned to the Hotel without any luck that day.
I attended the opening ceremony of the Neotropical, Ornithological Congress that same evening at the Tropicana Hotel conference hall. It was well attended with over 600 participants mainly from Brazil and the surrounding South American countries and a few scientists from the USA.
The following morning, once again I visited the Harpy Eagle nest together with another group of attendees to the congress. A scientist from Argentina spotted the juvenile that landed on a branch of the tall tree. It was a thrilling moment for all of us to see a live Harpy Eagle in the wild. I was able to find a window through the foliage to capture a few images before the bird flew away. That was the only sighting for the day. Its talons were almost fully-grown. The Harpy’s talons are the most powerful when compared to all other eagles of the world while the size is comparable to the claws of a grown grizzly bear. Being a deadly ambush predator, the black talons of the yellow feet of the Harpy enable it to catch its favorite prey such as howler monkey, as well as two and three toed sloths.
It was on the 22nd July, that I had a great opportunity to take more pictures of the juvenile and later to our delight the adult male arrived with a prey of a 3-toed sloth. We were able to watch and photograph the male and the juvenile together for at least fifteen minutes. But taking clear pictures was difficult from ground level when the object was at a height of 30 meters and at an angle of almost 90 deg.
After attending the closing ceremony of the Congress on the 24th evening, I boarded a flight from Manaus early morning the following day with transfers in Brasilia and Belem, and finally arrived in Carajas that same evening to continue my Odyssey into the Wild in search of the Harpies in the Amazon rainforest.
As scheduled, Filho arranged to pick me at 6 am from the hotel and later he joined me to go to the Harpies nest site, which was 100 km from the city. We had to pass through the Carajas iron-mining field, the largest iron ore reserve in the world, which was at one time part of the Carajas National Park. We reached the nest site at 8 am. There is a steel platform at 18 meters above ground, 47 meters away from the nest tree. This had been built in the year 2007 for the researchers of HAE when the nest was discovered at a height of 28 meters above ground. Filho had the key to the ladder of the platform.
Wow, what a fantastic sight when we got on to the platform!! The three months old chick was lying on the nest surface, possibly waiting for the parents. Filho helped to get my camera gear from the ground. We planned to stay on the platform for the rest of the day hoping for the adults to arrive. It was around noon when Filho exclaimed with excitement “Eagle! Eagle!” It was the female that landed on the nest with a piece of meat. The chick greeted the mother and later the mother started feeding her little Harpy. What a sight to behold! This is one of the rarest raptors in the wild. At around 2 pm the mother flew away from the nest and landed on a branch of the same tree. Its wingspan is around 2 meters. At around 4.30 pm we decided go back to hotel. Although the nest was 47 meters away from the platform, with my camera equipment I managed to take sharp images of the family.
Once again, the following morning we were at the Harpy nest by 7 am. We spent half the day on the platform, but sighted only the chick. We returned to the city by late afternoon. Since I had taken images of the Harpy family to my expectations, the following day I returned to Sao Paulo without staying a further night in Carajas.
On the 31st, I took a flight to Alta Floresta for three nights at Cristalino Lodge in the Amazon rainforest for further bird photography of species that I had not sighted before. There were two 50 meter high steel platforms at different locations close to the lodge. The view of the rain forest from the top of the two platforms was quite spectacular. I climbed to the top of the platforms on the two mornings of my stay there. Some of the birds seen from my elevated viewing point were Gould’s Toucanet, Lettered Aracari, Purple Honeycreeper, and Paradise Tanager and these are uncommon to other parts of Brazil.
During my stay in Manaus, I had the opportunity to meet scientists, researchers and many undergraduates at the Congress and shared information on fauna and flora of Sri Lanka with some of them. Communication was a challenge as most of them only spoke Portuguese and Spanish. I returned to Sri Lanka on the morning of August 6th.
My next expedition in search of birds of prey would be to the Philippines, targeting the Philippine Eagle sometimes known as the Monkey Eating Predator. It is second only to the Harpy Eagle in terms of size and strength, but sadly it is a critically endangered species.