As the first people attempting to fit a camera in the nest of the world's most powerful eagle, the BBC filmmakers knew they were likely to be attacked. But nothing could have prepared cameraman James Aldred for the defensive swoop by a 9kg female harpy eagle that left him nearly unconscious, ripped through his neck protection and knocked out his helmet's communication equipment.
The incident, which Aldred survived, was just one particularly dramatic moment in a year of unique footage of the rarely-seen eagle, which eat monkeys and can grow talons up to 13cm long. Shot in the remote Orinoco rainforest in Venezuela, the team filmed a pair of the elusive birds of prey and their chick as it grew into a juvenile.
The eagle's canopy-dwelling habits make it hard to find - the Planet Earth team gave up on it. Once wide-ranging across South America, the bird is now limited to a few strongholds including Venezuela, where the nest was at the fringe of logging operations.
Fergus Beeley, eagle expert and the documentary's producer, said: "I'm amazed by the harpy eagle. These are incredibly intelligent creatures. To kill monkeys, they have to be as intelligent as them, to outwit and ambush them. And it's indisputably the world's most powerful eagle. It has wrists and feet as big as mine."
The harpy, he said, was even stronger than other powerful eagles such as the crowned eagle of Africa and the Phillipines eagle. As well as taking small prey such as sloths and other birds, the species is known to kill red howler monkeys and even the young of the small brocket deer.
Beeley's documentary-makers had to wear protective clothing including helmets, stab-proof kevlar vests and elbow and wrist guards, while working at platforms 40-50m high in a humidity that left them "permanently sweating".
As well as the defensive attack on Aldred, the female harpy eagle hit one man in the kidneys and tore another's leather thigh protection. "Most birds of prey are frightened of people, but this one is not," said Beeley, whose team eventually fitted a nest-cam.
The comings and goings of the harpy eagles have also been recorded in a scientific paper that is currently being reviewed. The documentary, The Monkey-Eating Eagle of the Orinoco' , airs this Thursday at 8pm on BBC Two.
Biologist Aaron Pomerantz and wildlife photographer Jeff Cremer recently visited a rare harpy eagle nest in Tambopata, Peru.
Timing is everything in the Amazon rainforest. So when Jeff and I heard that there was a harpy eagle nest near the Refugio Amazonas jungle lodge, we knew that we had a narrow window of opportunity to see these rare birds caring for their young.
Why are harpy eagles so cool? For one, they are the largest eagle in the Americas and are considered the most powerful bird of prey in the entire world. With tarsal claws 5 inches long and a wingspan of up to six and a half feet, these beautiful and formidable predators make quick meals out of monkeys and sloths.
An adult harpy eagle brings back a howler monkey for breakfast. Image by Chris A. Johns
Harpy eagle nests are extremely rare and difficult to find. One researcher I spoke with in Peru described searching for harpy eagle nests like "searching for a needle in a haystack!" There are several reasons for their elusiveness:
- Harpy eagle nests are sparsely distributed throughout the vast rainforest
- The adults have slow reproductive rates, producing one chick every two to three years
- They tend to nest in massive trees, like the Brazil nut, making them difficult to spot from the ground
This last reason made things tricky. If we wanted to film this nest, we were going to need to be high up. So we grabbed our camera equipment, ropes and harnesses, then climbed up 100 feet into the canopy to observe this rare harpy eagle chick.
Harpy eagles are the most powerful raptors in the world. Here is a rare harpy eagle chick in Tambopata, Peru
Harpy eagle chick (Aaron Pomerantz)
The view from the canopy was pretty incredible. We could overlook the seemingly limitless green rainforest and were eye-level with the nest. Jeff's camera equipment came in handy -- although we were around 30 meters away from the nest, the 600mm and 800mm lenses caught some really sharp footage of the chick.
The harpy eagle chick is about 6 months old and looks strong and healthy. The adults have been visiting the nest less frequently and the chick is becoming more active, which indicates it may fledge soon.
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The adult harpy eagle shreds a freshly caught monkey for the chick (Aaron Pomerantz)
All in all, the journey was well worth it. Everyone was safe getting up and down from the canopy and the eagles were not disturbed. We feel very fortunate to have seen such an incredible animal in its natural environment and hope to see the chick return someday as a full grown adult with a wild mate of its own.
Check out more awesome images by wildlife photographer Jeff Cremer at www.PeruNature.com.
You can follow us on Twitter @AaronPomerantz and @JCremerPhoto.
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