Gwaihir the Windlord was the greatest of the Eagles in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Although the eagles do feature in the movie versions of both books, helping the main characters out of a number of sticky situations, it is only in the literature itself that they are given proper recognition. To be fair though, I have yet to watch the third instalment of The Hobbit trilogy, so maybe they get more airtime there.
Whatever the case, the cry “The eagles are coming!” is one I remember well from the books, and it invariably preceded a last-minute extraction from some near-death situation like a battle with orcs or a imminent engulfing by rivers of lava. Here at Londolozi, we have our own version of that call, and it refers to the migratory members of the family that make their way down from northern climes to take advantage of the abundance of food during the Southern African summer.
The eagles are indeed coming, but I want to focus mainly on the Wahlberg’s eagles, who even as I sit here typing this are moving steadily southwards from their winter hang-outs in Central, North and West Africa, making use of familiar landmarks they have flown over on many similar journeys, heading ultimately to the same nests they have used on many occasions before.
Wahlberg’s eagles breed south of the equator, and this re-using of the same nest is, too me at least, one of the most wonderful things about them, because it means that we get to recognise the same individuals that return year after year. Plumage colour can vary greatly amongst Wahlberg’s eagles, with some being dark brown and others being very pale (see picture below). Like most eagle species, Wahlberg’s are monogamous, mating for life, and they return each year to re-stake their claim over a particular patch of African bushveld in order to breed and raise a chick before winter returns and food availability plummets. Being among the first of the summer migrants to arrive, and certainly the first prominent bird species to arrive, the first Wahlberg’s eagle of the season is a sign that a change is imminent. There is always fierce competition between the guides and trackers to spot the first Wahlbergs of the year, and it was with great delight that the first one was called in over the radio a week or so ago.
Although I said that these eagles return to the same nest sites year after year, they can in fact have up to five different nesting sites within their territory, sometimes choosing a different one as the season demands. The nests themselves are not particularly impressive, but the fact that they can be used repeatedly for almost 30 years most certainly is!
One of the main reasons these eagles arrive early in the season is to make the nest ready for breeding, which they do by flying in greenery and extra sticks to repair some of the ravages of the six months they have been away. Once the egg has been laid (it is almost always only one egg that is laid. Two are rare.) it is a further 7-8 weeks before it hatches, after which the fledgling period is just over two months. The adult pair proportion out the work during this period, with the male doing most of the hunting and the female tearing the food up into smaller more manageable chunks for the chick.
After fledgling, the chick is still provided for by its parents, although not much is known about how long this semi-independent period lasts. One chick was recorded as still being fed ten weeks after its first flight!
As the days become shorter and the nights chillier, the Wahlberg’s eagles begin heading north again, past the equator, but wisely stopping short of the Sahara. There they will remain for the southern winter, roaming many thousands of square kilometres, gathering their strength to flap the long way south to repeat the cycle all over again.