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Klaserie Sands River Camp

Original source: yearinthewild.com

My friend Megan Murgatroyd has just finished her three-year study of the Cederberg’s black eagles – now known as Verreaux’s eagles. I stayed with  her boyfriend Matt Dowling and her at their cottage on Driehoek Farm, to me one of the best places in the Cederberg.

Megan and one of the eagles that she GPSd
Megan and one of the eagles that she GPSd

When she arrived in the Cederberg (after travelling from Ethiopia using public transport) she had never been to these mountains; she didn’t even know what a black eagle looked like. Although she had experience as an ornithological researcher, her first sight of a black eagle was upon driving into the mountains for the first time.

black-eagle-trail

People told her that there were six or seven pairs in the mountains. No-one really knew the status of these imperious raptors which have the biggest wingspan of any African eagle. So she set out to find every nest; figure out their home ranges; learn what they were eating; determine their breeding activity and employ GPS technology to track their movements.

After 44 days of incubation, usually two chicks are born at the end of May or June, but the one how hatches first will kill the second one.
After 44 days of incubation, usually two chicks are born at the end of May or June, but the one who hatches first will kill the second one.

Three years on and she’s done this and more. In all likelihood she’s now the world’s foremost authority on black eagles.

  • She’s hiked over 3 000 kilometres in the Cederberg, mostly alone, or accompanied by her loyal hound, Jengo.
  • Found 112 nesting sites and visited each of them several times, spending three hours peering through her telescope to study the activity.
  • Identified 21 pairs of eagles in the mountains (and 17 in the adjacent plains known as the Sandveld much of which is under agricultural use)
  • Fitted GPS devices to five eagles.
  • Installed several camera traps above nests to take fantastic footage of the eagles and their chicks.
Letting her first GPSd eagle go.
Letting her first GPSd eagle go.

And if all that wasn’t challenging enough, while hiking in her first year she broke her right leg so badly that she still has six titanium pins holding it together. At the same time, her Dad passed away, but after recovering at home in Cornwall in the UK and spending time with her Mom, she returned to the Cederberg to continue her studies. “My dad would have wanted me to do that,” Megan said.

Megan and Matt and Jengo on their stoep at Driehoek Farm.
Megan and Matt and Jengo on their stoep at Driehoek Farm.

She endured harsh Cederberg winters, spending days out in the cold weather while the snow came down. “The winters were so cold my whole body hurt, no matter how many clothes I wore,” she said. The summers weren’t too placid either, with temperatures well into the 40s.

Winter in the Cederberg!
Winter in the Cederberg!

On top of that, although most of the farmers on the Sandveld were accommodating and helpful with Megan’s research, one or two were less than friendly. Incomprehensible considering Megan has a very gentle nature and quietly-spoken ways.

It all adds up to quite a story. Then there’s the fascinating lives of the black eagles themselves.

Megan at her happiest.
Megan at her happiest.

Black eagles will divebomb leopards whenever they have the opportunity (Megan has seen this remarkable behaviour on several occasions!) The reason is that eagles and leopards share a common prey: rock hyrax, or dassie.

Dassie skulls that Megan and Matt find underneath the cliffs of the nests. Black eagles will take the carcass off the nest and drop it nearby.
Dassie skulls that Megan and Matt find underneath the cliffs of the nests. Black eagles will take the carcass off the nest and drop it nearby.

Black eagles tend to pair for life and defend their territories together. But if an aggressive male arrives and wins a battle with the resident male, then the resident female has no qualms in pairing up with the new guy.

Black eagles in the Cederberg and Sandveld have clearly demarcated territories. Megan’s GPS data shows how delineated the territories are: in some cases, it’s a narrow imaginary line that the eagles fly right up to but dare not venture across. Truly remarkable behaviour.

Although there is more farming in the Sandveld, the resident eagles are more successful at breeding. Megan thinks it has something to do with the increased availability of prey. There are plenty of mole rats and tortoises in the sandveld and it’s easier to catch them than dassies on cliffs in the mountains. The weather on the Sandveld is also better than the mountains where winter temperatures and rain can kill young chicks. There are also more eagles in the Cederberg compared to the Sandveld, so perhaps the increased competition for territory plays a role in reducing breeding success.

black-eagle-talons

One of Megan’s rewards is the simple satisfaction of having spent three adventurous years in a true mountain wilderness. Read her Facebook post about her very last hike to check on one of her nests:

“Today I did the last hike of the season to check on a nest in my most favourite spot: The mission was to check on a pair whose nests were burnt down at the start of the year. When I arrived I saw there was a new pile of sticks on the same ledge as one of their previous nests. Within ten minutes an eagle landed on the new nest and then the pair flew off and perched on a high cliff. After an hour one of them dived off, calling loudly and frequently, only to bomb a large leopard who continued along the slope obliviously. On the hike back, not one but two puff adders cruised calmly across the trail. What a day! Thanks Cederberg!”

Spot the path? Neither can I, that's because there is none.  she has to just scramble up the mountain to get to the base of a remote cliff!
Spot the path? Neither can I, that’s because there is none. She has to just scramble up the mountain to get to the base of the remote cliffs!

Well done Megan on the brilliant work!

Cederberg-birdwatching

Ndumu River Lodge
Scott Ramsay

Photojournalist Scott Ramsay focuses on exploring the national parks, nature reserves and community conservancies in Southern Africa, taking photographs and interviewing the experts who work in these protected areas. Through his work, he hopes to inspire others to travel to the continent's wild places, which Scott believes are Africa's greatest long term assets. For more, go to www.LoveWildAfrica.com or www.facebook.com/LoveWildAfrica. Partners include Ford Ranger, Goodyear, Cape Union Mart, K-Way, EeziAwn, Frontrunner, Hetzner and Globecomm.