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Giant Raptors of Ecuador
By: Lou Jost,
Author of Common Birds of Amazonian Ecuador
Some of the world’s most magnificent birds of prey cruise Ecuadorian skies in search of their next meal. For me the most awe-inspiring of all is the Jaguar of the Air, the world’s most powerful eagle, the Harpy. This giant bird lives by tearing monkeys and sloths out of the trees, using claws the size of a human hand, on legs as thick as a human wrist. It weighs up to twenty pounds, with broad powerful wings that allow it to lift still-living adult howler monkeys through the air. What a horrific ride that must be. No wonder small monkeys fling themselves out of the trees and fall to the ground cowering when this nightmare flies near. It is perhaps the only bird that would ever think about killing a human child; there is a report from Costa Rica of a close call.
The Harpy is the living spirit of the wildest, least disturbed lowland rainforests from Mexico south to Bolivia. A forest that still has Harpies is a special place, certain still to have all its other exotic residents: macaws, curassows, peccaries, big cats… A walk in such a forest is exciting, animated by the possibility of a Harpy appearing out of nowhere at any moment. But even in its prime habitat the Harpy never shows itself often enough to become familiar or ordinary. Harpies retain their mystery.
Painting by Lou Jost.
They do not coexist with civilization. Rainforest colonists shoot Harpies on sight to protect their domestic animals, to take the feet as trophies, or just for target practice. Even in virgin areas there are never many of these birds, whose density might be as low as one nest every ten or fifteen miles. Each nesting pair produces only a single offspring every two years. With such a low density and low rate of reproduction, even the lightest hunting pressure quickly eliminates them from an area.
Hunting and habitat destruction have now eliminated them from much of their former range. In Mexico, where I saw a forty year old captive Harpy bigger than any I’ve seen elsewhere, I doubt there can be many left in the wild. In Costa Rica a very small number survive in Corcovado National Park, Parque de la Amistad, and perhaps in other very remote areas, but it is severely endangered there and in other Central American countries. South America is its stronghold now, but here too it is disappearing along with the virgin forest it depends on.
In Ecuador, at least, visitors still have a chance to come across this eagle. The best places to see it in Ecuador are the most remote parts of the Oriente. It has been seen at La Selva lodge, Sacha lodge, and the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, and it is also seen occasionally on camping trips down the Cononaco and elsewhere deep in the jungle. But it is a lucky birder who gets to glimpse a Harpy. This eagle seldom soars; more often it hunts by stealth, sitting motionless in dense foliage or moving in short flights from crown to crown within the canopy. In spite of its size it takes a keen eye to spot one; taking a local guide with you will increase your chances. River or lake edges are good places to watch for Harpies, canopy tree towers are even better. Harpies show no fear of humans on tree towers, and indeed one I watched seemed curious about me and my group, moving from tree to tree around us as if checking us out, while I watched open mouthed through a handheld telescope. (I remember how it flew – it moved through the air slowly, majestically, like a gray battleship, an illusion of slowness created by its extreme size and I remember that huge dark beak…).
Your chances of finding a Harpy will improve if you pay attention to the forest around you. The forest reacts to the presence of a Harpy. Frantic calls of Whitethroated and Yellowridged Toucans calling together often indicate the presence of a large raptor. Pay attention to monkey behavior too a troop of squirrel monkeys dropping in unison from the branches, taking cover and going silent, almost always means a large eagle nearby. Listen too for the calls of the eagle one call is a set of drawn-out whistles slightly reminiscent of an Ornate Hawk-Eagle’s call. Best of all would be to go to an active nest; occasionally indigenous people know of one, usually high in a kapok (ceiba) tree. ( Please, if you should have the chance to visit a nest, be respectful and sensitive. Do not approach the nest closely, don’t make noise, and above all impress on your guides your desire to see these birds like this, in the wild, and not in captivity.
Painting by Lou Jost.
When you finally do see your Harpy, you better look at it carefully. There is another giant raptor in the lowlands here, the Crested Eagle, which can be very difficult to distinguish from a Harpy. The Crested Eagle is a smaller bird, but not by much, and a large female is barely smaller than a small male Harpy. Its habits are similar as well, though it soars more often, and shows a predilection for catching large snakes. The plumage differences are obvious when comparing adult birds the adult Harpy has a dramatic black chest band, while the Crested Eagle does not but young Harpies look almost exactly like Crested Eagle. If your bird lacks a chest band, look carefully at the bands of its tail to discover whether it is a young bird or an adult. Both the adult Harpy and the adult Crested Eagle have boldly barred tails, the dark bars about as wide as the light ones, about three or four dark bars if seen from below. If your bird has an adult tail like this, and no black chest band, then you are looking at a Crested Eagle.
On the other hand, if the tail is a juvenile’s, with numerous dark bands much narrower than the light bands, you need to look very carefully. Young birds of these species are tricky to distinguish (and they stay in these difficult plumages a long time, about four years). It is sometimes said that the number of long crest feathers is definitive ( a two-pointed crest for the Harpy, a single long crest for the Crested Eagle) but this depends on molt, the wind, etc., and is not reliable. I have seen a Crested Eagle change from a single crest to a double crest and back again minute by minute depending on head position relative to the wind. Better distinctions are tail length (longer in Crested Eagle), beak proportions (beak-to-head proportions of the Harpy are more like these of the Bald Eagle, while Cresteds are more like Golden Eagle), and face mask (the dark cere and lores of a Crested Eagle form an eye mask continuous with the dark beak, whereas Harpies have a lighter area between eyes and beak).
One other species might be confused with a Harpy or Crested Eagle. The juvenile Ornate Hawk-Eagle is a much smaller more slender bird, but such slight variations can be a difficult to judge, especially for a newcomer to the tropics. In plumage it is very much like a juvenile Crested Eagle or Harpy, with a white head and dark crest and with tail barring similar to those birds. Maybe the best distinguishing marks are the strongly barred flanks of the Ornate Hawk Eagle; immature Harpies and Crested Eagle show much less flank barring. Also, Ornate Hawk-Eagle immatures soon begin to show some sandy buff color on the crown or nape, a color that is totally nonexistent in Harpies or Crested Eagles.
The Harpy and the Crested Eagle are not the only large crested eagles in Ecuador. Middle-elevation cloud forest on the flanks of the Andes are hunted by the Black-and-chestnut Eagle, smaller than a Harpy but almost as big as a Crested Eagle, and bigger than any other Ecuadorian eagle. It eats large birds (e.g. guans), squirrels, and larger arboreal mammals.
I have seen it at elevations as low as 1400 meters, and it is reported occasionally as high as 3500 meters. It can be seen with some regularity around Baeza and near San Isidro on the east slope, and in Mindo on the west slope. Unlike the Harpy and Crested Eagle, this eagle soars regularly and often crosses valleys in conspicuous straight flights, so it is probably the easiest to see of Ecuador’s great eagles. Adults can be recognized at once by their broad straight wings, dark plumage, and light patch at base or primaries. Juveniles look very like juvenile Ornate Hawk-Eagles, but the latter has strongly barred wing linings and flanks, and a different shape.
All of these eagles, even the Harpy, are dwarfed by the worlds largest bird of prey, Ecuador’s national bird, the Andean Condor. This bird has a wing spread of ten feet and can weigh 25 pounds, making it one of the largest of all flying birds. Adults are black with white panels on the upper surface of their wings, a fluffy white collar, and pinkish head. Juveniles are solid brown. In Ecuador it lives mostly in high remote mountains, near timberline and above. (Farther south in Peru it extends its altitudinal range all the way to the ocean shore.) It usually nests on rocky cliffs, and may gather together to roost in groups on particular cliff faces. It feeds on carrion. At a carcass the condors are of course the dominant feeders; other scavengers, like the caracaras, give them all the space they want. There is also usually an established dominance order among the condors themselves.
Although biologists tend to dismiss the idea, the local Quichua people believe that condors kill young animals. Some people say that they startle animals on steep ridges or cliffs and cause them to fall to their death. A few months ago I was on a narrow ridge on Volcan Tungurahua when six condors in tight formation cruised by at eye level just twenty or thirty feet off the ground, moving very fast along the ridge. What were they doing flying so close to the ground? Looking for a chance to startle something? Maybe just heading for some distant roosting ground. I don’t know, but I won’t dismiss the native legends.
Soaring condors are an awe-inspiring sight. It is a sight that has become rare in Ecuador these days, though as recently as fifteen years ago condors could sometimes be seen from Quito. It is hard to know exactly how many condors still live here, because they travel long distances, but one estimate puts their population at about 70 pairs. The biggest concentration of condors lives on the paramo of Antisana, a snow-capped extinct volcano in northeast Ecuador. El Altar also has frequent condor sightings, and Pasochoa Forest Reserve near Quito host a few birds. Cotopaxi National Park is another good place to look for condors; there is feral horse herd in the park, and a dead horse may attract several condors.
The most convenient place to look for condors is the Papallacta Pass just east of Quito. A few birds even breed there. Recently a nest was found there directly above a construction project which was going to dynamite a tunnel through the mountain. Thanks to a lot of publicity the construction project was done carefully and (to my surprise) the young bird fledged successfully. Not only this condor family but also some Antisana birds can often be seen flying over the main road through the pass, the road which connects Quito to the eastern lowlands.
Condors have long been persecuted by man. In past centuries the local people would trap them by building a fence around a dead animal. Condors would fly in, gorge themselves on the carcass, and be unable to fly out because there wasn’t enough room to get a running start. These live-trapped condors were sometimes used in festivals, where they were tied to the backs of bulls as symbols of indigenous people’s bondage to the Spanish. It was a good omen if the condor escaped.
Shepherds and ranchers still kill them, and even ordinary people with no livestock to protect would shoot a condor if presented with the opportunity. When those six condors flew past me on Tungurahua, an old man standing next to me, a long-time resident of Tungurahua, raised up an imaginary gun and “shot” them. Several other local people have told me about the time they shot their condor. I always ask why they shot it, and they usually just shrug their shoulders.
There are educational programs in progress here, and perhaps they will take hold in time. Meanwhile it is every day more difficult to find the great birds of prey of Ecuador. Like the parrots, macaws, curassows, and waterfowl, large raptors as a group face a grim future in tropical America. Whenever you get the chance, help change the odds by supporting conservation efforts aimed at protecting very large (>10,000 acres) reserves. Only huge protected areas can preserve these fragile kings of the air.