Day 30: Stalking the Harpy Eagle

The most powerful raptor in the Western Hemisphere proves elusive, even when nesting.

January 30, 2015, Serra das Araras, Brazil — When I landed last evening in Cuiaba, in central Brazil, a local birder named Giuliano Bernardon and his sister Bianca (a bird researcher living in Amazonas, visiting for a few days) whisked me into the night with an exciting plan: They knew about an active Harpy Eagle nest and we aimed to be there at dawn!

I have always dreamed of seeing a wild Harpy Eagle. Harpies are the biggest, most powerful raptor in the New World; they have legs as thick as your wrist and talons as big as a grizzly bear’s, and they eat monkeys and sloths. They are rarely seen, and live in the wildest rain forests of South and Central America. So I was keyed up this morning when Giuliano, Bianca and I rose at 4:45 a.m. to visit Serra das Araras where the nest is staked out.

Harpy Eagles take time off between nesting attempts, sometimes several years, so my timing here seemed lucky. Giuliano said this nest is probably the only known, active one in all of Brazil right now. Last week, some people watched the male eagle fly in with prey while the female sat on the nest, which was encouraging news. We walked through a savannah-like forest just after dawn, arrived at the spot, looked up in a tree, and saw… 

An empty nest. No eagles.

Giuliano was perplexed, because, after last week’s sighting, he expected to find the female sitting on the nest, incubating eggs. Was the nest so deep that she could hide inside without being seen? We couldn’t tell. At least, we thought, the top of her head should be visible from the ground. We walked around, inspected the nest tree from every angle, and waited for a couple of hours with no luck. There was some brief excitement when Bianca spotted a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle perched in a nearby tree (a cool bird, but no Harpy), but our vigil was otherwise unrewarded.

Reluctantly, the three of us hiked out and spent the rest of the morning birding the surrounding forest. We saw 85 species, many of which were new for my year, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. A Harpy Eagle might count the same as a House Sparrow, but it was a big miss!

We swung back by the site just before noon, and the nest still looked empty. It was hot, and Giuilano, Bianca and I sat in the shade to deliberate our next move. We had a three-hour drive to reach the beginning of the Pantanal, where we’ll spend the next two days, and wanted to arrive in daylight. We lingered for another hour. Just as we were discussing where we might find lunch, I looked up and watched a huge shape swoop into the nest tree: The male Harpy Eagle had arrived! 

It was a dramatic moment. The Harpy landed at the nest with half a coati in its talons—a gift for the female. What a magnificent bird! He called a few times and looked around for her, but she wasn’t in sight. I studied his eyeballs and toenails through my Leica scope. After a few minutes, he moved to a nearby tree, perched inconspicuously within its foliage, and spent the next hour sitting patiently with his coati. 

Giuliano, Bianca and I eventually slipped away, exuberant and relieved, to continue toward the famous Pantanal. Not even a 95-degree, middle-of-nowhere traffic jam (a fuel tanker had jackknifed, rolled, and exploded) could dampen the mood. We arrived at the beginning of the Pantanal in time to spend a couple more hours birding in late afternoon, and ended the day having seen 147 species: A Harpy Eagle, and 146 bonus birds!

New birds today: 69

Year list: 686

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