A Wahlberg's Summer
African Birdlife|May/June 2021
Wahlberg’s Eagles have always been close to my heart and when the opportunity arose to photograph a breeding pair at the nest, I grabbed it with both hands. It all started when Marius, my future son-in-law, told me early in 2019 about an eagle’s nest in a thorn tree near the Sand River on the farm where he lives in Limpopo. He sent me a photograph of the two eagles at the nest and I immediately recognised them as a pair of Wahlberg’s. To add to my excitement, one of them was a pale morph.
Pietman Muller

The first chance I got, I drove the 100 kilometres to the farm. The nest was on a branch on the eastern side of an acacia tree, about 50 metres from the riverbank at the foot of a rocky outcrop and between 10 and 11 metres above the ground. I established that the pale morph was the female and she was beautiful. The male was also quite a handsome fellow, slightly lighter in colour than the usual dark brown. To observe them I would need a hide, so we erected scaffolding, some nine metres high, halfway up the rocky outcrop and about 20 metres from the nest tree. We covered the top section with 80 per cent shade cloth and finished it off with camouflage netting. We spread the work over three weeks so as not to disturb her too much. However, she was unperturbed and continued incubating the egg, lying flat in the nest and not leaving once, while we worked.

The egg hatched sometime during the second week of November and although I could not see into the nest, the pair’s behaviour changed and I could see feeding activity. An unseasonally late and severe cold front hit Limpopo on 18 November, with rain and strong winds accompanied by very low temperatures. I was up in the hide when the storm hit and due to safety concerns decided to call it a day. The following day I received word that the anchor wires of the scaffolding had broken, the hide had blown over and the parents had stopped feeding. The eaglet had not survived the storm.

On 10 September 2020, the male was seen at the nest and the female arrived a day or so later. We re-erected the hide with the same caution, ensuring that it was properly secured, and then left her alone to settle in and become accustomed to the structure; in any event, there would not be many photographic opportunities during incubation. I visited the nest on two occasions during the incubation period, once in late October and again in early November. On both occasions, the female did not seem to be disturbed by my presence and continued to incubate. Between 5 December (when the eaglet was between 14 and 20 days old) and 20 December, I was able to spend five days (on different occasions) in the hide, totalling 30 hours. Both parents were very relaxed around the nest, which made photographing them easy. I made cryptic notes of my observations on my phone, a diary of sorts, and I am including some excerpts from my first and last days in the hide.

5 December 2020

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