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Harpy Eagles are one of the most powerful birds of prey in the world. Their talons are the size of Grizzly Bear claws and their gigantic beaks make quick work of the monkeys and sloths they hunt for food. These massive birds of prey have a wingspan of six to seven feet and, when sitting, have the height of a five-year-old child.
They are also one of the least observed raptor species in the world. Combined with diminished number due to habitant loss and human trophy hunters, Harpy Eagles don't soar to hunt, but lurk in the trees like a gigantic winged monstrosity, waiting to ambush prey in surprise. (It goes without saying that monkey and sloth nightmares are dominated by Harpy Eagles.) They also require a huge territory for hunting, with a single pair occupying between 3,000 and 7,000 hectares of forest. So for birders and wildlife enthusiasts alike, a close encounter with a Harpy Eagle is a rare and precious experience.
Our friends at Refugio Amazonas in the Peruvian Amazon's Tambopata Region recently had such luck when a pair of Harpy Eagles nested and reared a chick in close proximity to their canopy platform. The location of the nest enabled photographers and wildlife experts to observe and birds at close range without disturbing them. The following photographs and account are provided by Jeff Cremer, who leads nature photography tours at Refugio Amazonas and the Tambopata Research Center.
""Birders spend their whole lives just to catch a glimpse of the Harpy Eagle. We were incredibly lucky to be able to sit in a tree for two days right next to a family of them. What makes that especially rare is the fact that a pair of Harpy Eagles nest just once every two or even three years." Cremer said. "I've seen Jaguars, Tapirs and Puma and have even been the first person to film new species but seeing the Harpy Eagle feed and interact with its chick was really amazing."
At around 4:30am while it was still dark, the team gathered up their photography gear and hiked into the jungle. After a 30 minute hike the team arrived at the tree and started preparing for the climb up. Using climbing harnesses and ascenders the team climbed twelve stories into a huge rainforest tree. What they saw, perched twelve stories high while strapped to a tree, was a Harpy Eagle chick nestled in a four-foot thick, five-foot wide fortress of branches and soft leaves. The chick was patiently waiting for its mother to return and eventually, she did.
"We were really surprised when she showed up. She swooped in without a sound while carrying a full grown Brazilian Porcupine in her claws," Cremer said. “She just sat there and watched while the baby ate it up.”
After they ate the Porcupine, the mother bird began calling until her mate, a huge male Harpy Eagle, came flying in to deliver half the body a sloth to the nest.
Fellow wildlife photographers and biologists Lucas Bustamante and Jaime Culebras of Tropical Herping have spent the better part of the last decade photographing wildlife in the Ecuadorian rainforest and were with Cremer to photograph and film the eagle.
"In my country, Ecuador, there is an Amazonian tribe called the Huaorani," Bustamante explained. "They believe that they are descendants of the Jaguar and the Harpy Eagle. They worship these two animals as their gods and view them as being very important to the jungle. After being face to face with an Harpy Eagle it is easy to see why they believe that. Finding myself in the jungle with that mythological creature, was like being in front of a legendary Griffin."
"This rest of the trip was like paradise," said Jaime Culebras, "We were able to photograph two Jaguars, a Puma with her baby, a family of Otters playing a few meters from our boat, hundreds of macaws eating right in front of our cameras, four species of monkeys on trails and dozens of peccaries visiting the lodge just about every day. Adding the pair of Harpy Eagles feeding their young in the nest made this trip a dream come true!”
Contact our Peru Program Director today to learn how you can also experience the Tambopata on a photography-focused tour!