Sunday 26 December 2010

Harpy eagle nest watch

My Boxing Day was a harpy eagle research day. I am so fascinated by this creature that I can spend days trawling the web, reading about it. Like the king vulture, which I am also fascinated by, it's one of the gods of Venezuelan Amazonian tribes such as the Pemón, Warao and Yanomami. The Pemón live in the Lost World of the Guiana Highlands, near Roraima and Auyantepui. The Warao, or water people, live in stilt huts on the Orinoco Delta and the Yanomami live in south east Venezuela and north eastern Brazil. I've briefly visited the Warao and the Pemón and studied their lives and mythologies. The Pemón guide eco-tourists to the foot of Angel Falls in Canaima National Park in their curiara – traditional canoes powered by an outboard motor. They know the steep, rapid-strewn rivers of that breathtaking landscape intimately, as I discovered when we dodged rocks and rapids at full speed! They also guide groups up Mount Roraima, the highest of the tepuis or table mountains.

Their mythology includes much about the 'sky-world' – the plateaus of these giant prehistoric mesas. To ascend their spirit worlds in their myths they stick white harpy eagle down feathers in their hair. I don't know if they still do this, though I did climb Mount Roraima in 1995, and was aware that they considered it sacred and that we had to keep our voices quiet so as not to offend their spirits. The Yanomami sometimes raise a harpy eagle chick in a wooden cage for a supply of white down feathers to stick in their hair for ritual dress. 

The female eagle is a third larger than the male and can even grab large howler monkeys from trees. I've posted this BBC documentary of a pair of harpies and their chick as I think it's quite extraordinary, especially towards the end, when the chick is almost fully grown (the team spent one year observing the nest), and the fledgling spends a lot of time watching the cameraman with intense curiosity. Since monkeys are pretty clever, he is going to have to learn how to outwit them so as to get enough to eat, and this film reveals the harpy's education as he observes the behaviour of his primate prey.