The Cederberg Conservancy, a collection of protected land which includes CapeNature’s Wilderness Area as well as private farmland, has as its logo the black eagle, or what is now known as the Verreaux’s Eagle. The mountains and cliffs of the Cederberg are perfect habitat for this imperious raptor. One can regularly see them soaring above, singly or in pairs (apparently, they sometimes hunt together – the one flying obviously above a dassie, the other one swooping in to snatch the prey by surprise).
But despite their relatively common appearance, no-one knows for sure how many there are, or where they nest and why they thrive here. So when Megan Murgatroyd, an English lass with a conservation degree from the University of the West of England, pitched up in the Cederberg (via an intrepid solo trip via public transport from Ethiopia to South Africa!) to look for a research project for her M.Sc, she asked Quinton Martins of the Cape Leopard Trust for his advice. He started talking about the Verreaux’s eagle, and how they’re linked to the leopard.
“Quinton suggested that I focus on the eagles, because 35% of the leopard’s prey is dassies, and most of the eagle’s prey is also dassies,” Megan explained, “so they both rely a lot on dassies for food – there’s an obvious link there.”
At first, the locals thought there may be seven nests in the Cederberg. Then Megan started hiking the Cederberg, without really knowing what to expect (except sore legs and tired feet!). She set off into the mountains every day, methodically scouring the cliff faces with her trusty telescope. Little did she know how rewarding her efforts would be! Since she began her observations in March this year, her nest count is an amazing 19.
“But there could well be double that number,” Megan said. “There could be 40 or more nests. There could be about 50 pairs of eagles in the Cederberg. This year I want to try find as many nests as possible!”
We met Megan early yesterday morning to walk with her up the popular hiking route to the Maltese Cross. I wanted to get some photos of this iconic landmark, and Megan wanted to show us a nest nearby which she has been monitoring for activity, but has yet to see an eagle land on it.
It’s a steep hike, but the weather was sublime – sunny, cool and clear. The recent cold weather had dusted the Sneeuberg with a light cover of snow.
We turned off the trail, and started up a ridge. Megan set up her tripod and telescope and focused on a huge nest of sticks and twigs on a cliff face above us. “I haven’t seen an eagle on this nest before,” Megan said, “but I’ve got a few hours here, so hopefully something will come by.”
Megan spends about three hours monitoring each nest, and often she’s alone, something she doesn’t mind. “I actually really like being on my own!”
We sat with her for an hour or so, then headed back up the trail to take some photos of the Maltese Cross, and then walked back down to meet her again a few hours later. She hadn’t seen an eagle near the nest, but one had flown overhead, past the cliff face. It may have seemed like a long day without reward, but Megan’s smile was undiminished. “This is really just the start of my project – there is still so much to do. And everyone in the Cederberg has been really supportive!”
Even though Megan is now the region’s expert of these raptors, she admits that she didn’t really know what a black eagle was until recently.
“I’d never even seen one until last year,” Megan laughed, adding that at the time she had to confirm in her bird book that it was indeed a Verreaux’s eagle. But now this intrepid lady is the Cederberg’s expert on black eagles. “But my main aim is to get the local community involved, so they end up monitoring the nests and the study of the eagle becomes their responsibility.”
Megan is planning to raise funding for four solar-powered GPS devices, each of which will fit onto the back of an eagle. It will allow her to track their movements precisely. Each costs about R20 000, so if anyone can help Megan, get hold of her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out her Facebook page and her website.