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Nature | Jungle Eagle

Harpy eagles are the most powerful birds of prey in the world.  Standing three feet tall, with a six-foot wingspan and razor-sharp talons the size of bear claws, these birds are the heavyweight hunters of the South American rainforest.  They are the top predators in the jungle canopy, feeding regularly on monkeys and sloths.  But scientists know very little about harpy eagles because their numbers are few, their habitat is large, they never soar above the trees, and they rarely come to the ground.  Hidden in the branches of the canopy, they are rarely seen, let alone filmed.  Nature enters their secret world with wildlife filmmaker Fergus Beeley (White Falcon, White Wolf) and his team of cameramen as they locate a nest and struggle to document the lives of these elusive birds in Venezuela’s Orinoco River jungle.  The team comes dangerously close to the notoriously aggressive birds, risking serious injury to obtain pictures of the birds in their nest.  And the tables turn when one of these massive birds starts following them. 

“People often don’t realize the extreme circumstances and patience involved in wildlife filmmaking,” said Fred Kaufman, series executive producer.  “Fergus and his crew had to endure oppressive jungle heat and wear riot gear to avoid harpy attacks in order to film these Jurassic-like creatures.”

In the canopy of an enormous Ceiba tree, 130 feet above the ground, resides a family of harpy eagles — a male, a much larger female, and their chick.  Here, in the uppermost layer of the forest, is a world unto itself, where the trees fruit and flower and a myriad of birds and monkeys make their homes.  Beeley and his crew risk serious injury to install a small “nest cam” for close-up surveillance.  The enormous female is not at all happy about the intrusion and attacks.  But it’s worth the risk. It’s the only way they will get a good view of the nest area.   

All the efforts of the eagle parents are invested in protecting and raising their new family member.  The mother stays at the nest to protect the tiny, vulnerable chick from the blistering sun and from predators large and small.  Vultures and monkeys, deadly botflies and army ants are all threats.  The harpy mother is prepared for all of them, even providing shade and natural insecticides of carefully chosen foliage placed in the nest.  Together they wait for the food the male will bring back to them from his hunt — typically howler monkeys, capuchins, or sloths.  They are surrounded with birds and monkeys in nearby trees, but the male heads further away to find his prey. 

Rain can be a real killer.  Storms blow in on sudden gusts of wind and ruin the chances for a successful hunt.  During a heavy rain that lasts for days, a chick could die of hunger or exposure, or both.  Beeley and his crew anxiously wait through a three-day storm, wondering at the fate of the mother and chick.  It’s a close thing, but they do survive.  The crew leaves the jungle with plans to return in eight weeks to observe the next phase of the young eagle’s life.

When they return, the chick is transformed into a young bird with a personality and an interest in what is going on around him, especially camera crews.  But first they must repair the “nest cam,” which has become fogged up.  Persuading someone to go back up past the dangerously aggressive female is not easy, but they suit up and climb.  One member of the crew is hit so hard by the female that he is left stunned.  Another watches his back so he can finish the task.  And the crew is once again able to watch the young chick grow.  He is curious about everything and eager to learn to fly and hunt. 

For a year, they will follow him and get to know him well as he grows into a young adult.  Their encounters with him and his family are a treasure trove of new information about these fantastic birds.  Beeley finds it hard to leave, but is grateful for the insights he has gained and for the extraordinary connection he was able to forge with this majestic eagle.

Watch Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 8 p.m.

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