If you’re keen on birds of prey you should consider going on a specialist raptor trip. Eagles and other avian predators can be found almost everywhere in the world. So it’s just a matter of choosing your favourite raptor species and finding a good local tour operator.
Award-winning nature writer, Mike Unwin, had long wished for an encounter with the awe-inspiring Harpy Eagle. That’s why he begins his story with a raptor trip to Panama.
It’s only 8.00 am, but already I’m wilting in the rainforest heat. The humid air hums with insects. Leafcutter ants file past my boots. Suddenly a flurry of wingbeats overhead announces what we’ve been waiting for. I peer up through the tangle of greenery and there she is: a female Harpy Eagle.
Crest defiantly erect, a sloth dangling from meat-hook talons, this is an awesome bird. The world’s most powerful eagle is a fitting national emblem for Panama, in whose Darien National Park I’m now standing. A plaintive chirping from the nest reminds her of her duties. And only now, as her hatchet bill starts to butcher the prey, dare I raise my camera.
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There’s something about eagles. The predatory power, the defiant glare, those magnificent wings lifting them high and out of reach of our world. It all has an irresistible allure. They are, if you like, the avian equivalent to big cats. Our pursuit of them leads us to some of the world’s most exciting places. If you’re watching an eagle, then you’re probably standing somewhere pretty wild.
Eagles, Eagles Everywhere!
I’ve watched Golden Eagles quarter the Scottish Highlands in search of hares in the heather. I’ve seen an African Fish Eagle pluck a struggling barbel from the Zambezi right beside my canoe. I’ve followed Wedge-tailed Eagles combing the red-rock canyons of the Australian Outback. And I’ve admired giant Steller’s Sea Eagles circling Kamchatka’s snow-capped volcanoes.
Each new bird of prey sighting on a raptor trip brings the same thrill. The eagle, vulture or owl seems the very embodiment of the wilderness it inhabits. It seems to have the power of life and death clutched in its talons. Small wonder that eagles have so long been our emblems, from imperial Rome to the US military. The Golden Eagle alone is the national bird of six countries today.
But size isn’t everything. While large eagles may be among the most impressive birds of prey, there are other raptors further down the scale. And they are just as rapacious.
Smaller Birds Of Prey On A Raptor Trip
Take the tiny African Pygmy Falcon, which is barely heavier than the lizards and rodents it plucks from the sandy wastes of the Kalahari. Or the Northern Goshawk, which slips like a winged assassin through the conifer branches, ambushing jays and squirrels alike.
For each feeding opportunity in the natural world, a bird of prey has evolved to fill the niche. Thus, Peregrine Falcons use sheer speed to overhaul their prey on the wing. In contrast, Marsh Harriers drift slowly over reedbeds using fine hearing to detect the rustle of rodents below.
Some species are specialists. Ospreys have evolved the art of plunge-diving for fish. Secretary Birds have specially toughened feet for stamping on snakes as they stalk the African savannah. Others are generalists. Black Kites twist and wheel over the bush fire and city dump alike, searching for anything edible – alive or dead.
The Carrion Eaters
And talking of dead, not all birds of prey live up to the noble hunter image that we so admire. Vultures, of course, inspire a particular revulsion for their carrion-eating lifestyle. But these fastidiously clean birds – blessed with phenomenal eyesight and prodigious soaring abilities – play a vital clean-up role in nature. And there are few more compelling sights than watching them drop from the skies in Africa, Asia or Europe to pull apart a carcass.
Each raptor has its role. The huge Lappet-faced Vulture, with its powerful bill, may open up the prize. The medium-sized White-backed and Ruppell’s Vultures follow, battling for the choicest morsels. Finally, the smaller Hooded Vultures follow, using their more delicate bills to probe the corners that larger beaks can’t reach. Many and varied are these carrion eaters – Griffon, Cinereous, Turkey, Egyptian, Himalayan, Palm-nut, Cape, King. Each one fulfils an important role in clearing up their countrysides of corpses that could otherwise pollute the environment.
The Strange And The Specialist
The raptor world also has its weirdos. Take the Snail Kite of Central America, which you might see on a raptor trip. It uses a long, curved hook on its bill to winkle water snails from their shells. Or consider the African Harrier Hawk. Its long legs enable it to reach deep into weaver bird nests and pluck out the unfortunate chicks.
The Bearded Vulture is a massive species of the Himalayas and other remote mountain ranges. It has learned to carry bones to a dizzy height and then drop onto the rocks below. This smashes them open so the bird can get at the juicy marrow inside.
Many raptors are migrants, and in some parts of the world, their journeys converge into impressive mass movements. There is a ‘river of raptors’ that passes through Mexico’s Vera Cruz province every spring and autumn. This sees Red-tailed Hawks, Mississippi Kites, Turkey Vultures and numerous other species gather in their tens of thousands. Together they make the narrow land crossing into a raptor highway.
Similar spectacles can be seen on a raptor trip in Israel or the Straits of Gibraltar. There, the likes of Honey Buzzards and Booted Eagles cross the Mediterranean between African wintering grounds and European breeding grounds.
Your Chances Are Good On A Raptor Trip
The good news for the raptor enthusiast is that these birds are found everywhere in the world. Almost every destination you might choose for going on a trip will enable you to see a bird of prey stars. For the birds themselves, our interest and excitement can only be good news.
Like predators of all kinds, many raptors have long been on the wrong end of persecution. They have been shot or trapped by farmers for their alleged predation on livestock. They are killed for interfering with the raising of game birds. And they are dying out for want of suitable habitat for nesting and feeding chicks.
Vulture numbers across Asia continue to diminish as the birds succumb to the toxic veterinary drug Diclofenac. This poisons them when they eat the carcasses of dead livestock. Rarities such as the formidable Philippine Eagle battle to survive as their precious rainforests are whittled inexorably away.
It is incumbent on wildlife lovers everywhere to get out on a raptor trip to see these inspiring birds. Your interest in watching them in a natural setting will incentivise the custodians of their wild landscapes to appreciate them. Then, with luck, future generations will take up the cause of conserving these treasured raptors.
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Mike Unwin is a writer who specialises in natural history and conservation. In addition to The Atlas of Birds, he is the author of The Bradt Guide to Southern African Wildlife, 100 Bizarre Animals and the RSPB Introduction to Birdwatching.
Published on: 6 March 2021