Christina Vojta observing a harpy eagle nest

The Allure of the Harpy

January 31, 2018

In my tenth year of life, I met a harpy eagle. Not the real deal, but an image found in a library book, Animals of South America, that nearly sucked me into the page with its bold, black eyes and shaman-like crest. The creature looked more mystical than real, an impression that was partly due to the age of the photo (circa 1950), and the fact that it was black and white and slightly blurred. No matter. I couldn’t take my eyes off that photo. Each time I flipped through the book, I would turn to that page first, and each time, the magical essence of that being absorbed me. When my mother told me that I had to return the book to the library, the harpy compelled me to open the book again for a final, thrilling glimpse.

Decades later, I took a trip to Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru with my husband, hoping that among the other wonders of the Amazon rainforest, we would see a harpy eagle. Alas, my dreams were thwarted. Although we had a marvelous time, no harpy eagles came forth to greet me.

Thus, a year later, when my husband said he saw a job announcement for a research assistant position in the Amazon of Peru, studying monkeys and observing a harpy eagle nest, I thought he was kidding. It sounded too good to be true!

Twenty-five years as a wildlife biologist and a life-time of outdoor experience enabled me to qualify for this work, especially since I had conducted my own research on the northern goshawk, a large, forest hawk of North America. I applied for the position, and to my extreme joy, I was hired.

I had the pleasure of working for Dara Adams, a Ph.D. student from Ohio State University. Dara was investigating monkey behavior in response to the presence of predators, including the harpy eagle, and wanted to learn if five species of local monkeys altered their behavior when near an active eagle nest. She also wanted to know which of these monkey species found themselves at the end of a pair of eagle talons, being carried into the nest to feed the eagle chick.

I spent half my time searching for groups of monkeys and recording their numbers, behavior, and distance from the eagle nest. The other half was dedicated to watching the eagle nest and recording feeding behavior and the types of prey that were fed to the chick.

My experiences from that summer have become the foundation for the harpy eagle study in Life after Ceviche.  I want you, my readers, to feel the excitement of watching the largest eagle in South America. I want you to get to know both the adult eagle and its chick, and learn how the chick develops as it moves from nestling to fledgling. To achieve this, the harpy eagle female and its chick are not simply background decoration in my novel, but function as characters. They influence the behavior of the protagonist, Michelle, and drive much of the action of the first part of the story.

A gnawing hunger interrupted the chick’s attention, followed by an urge to return to the nest where food could be found. Rocking from leg to leg, the chick prepared for the longest flight of its short life, from the massive ceiba back to its shihuahuaco home. Back to the nest, just one hundred feet away.

 The fledgling leaned forward, searching for the right balance for flight. Wings had to be opened. Legs had to push off. It all had to happen at once. It was complicated. Maybe someone could simply bring the food here, to this perch. The chick crouched into a begging pose, craned its neck backward, and began to cry.

Michelle heard the chick. “Well dang, there you are, you rascal!” she whispered. “You aren’t even in the nest tree. You’re out exploring the neighborhood! You’re going to be no end of trouble from now on, I can tell!”

Am I Michelle, the harpy eagle researcher? The answer is, No. I have allowed Michelle to see harpy eagles through my eyes, and she shares the same love and respect for nature that I do. And we both spent our time in the rainforest, with our “right eye pressed against a spotting scope as if nothing else existed – only the scope, the eye, and the object in view.” But Michelle has a much greater reputation as a raptor biologist, and plunges into a lot more trouble. Here is a description of Michelle:

 In contrast to the elegant vestments of the eagle, the biologist worked in standard jungle attire—lightweight clothing of olive or tan and calf-high rubber boots. She preferred to go hatless, claiming that the brim obstructed her view, and adding that it was pointless to wear a hat since the dense jungle was forever cast in shade. Threads of gray had begun to appear in her multi-hued blond hair, but she still wore it in the style of her graduate student days, a single braid trailing halfway down her back or sometimes over one shoulder.

 Her wide cheekbones were acquired from the Swedish side of her family, along with gray-blue eyes that reflected a deep appreciation of the natural world, inherited from her grandfather. She did not indulge in her appearance, yet all who met her saw beauty in her radiant hair and in her slim, athletic build, acquired from a lifetime of outdoor pursuits in the mountains, canyons, and rivers of the West.

So…how does Michelle get into trouble? Well…the harpy eagle is not the only character who carries the story. In my next blog, I’ll introduce you to Julián, the man she met on her way to the harpy eagle nest.

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