The lure of the harpy

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. The eagle 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 eagle. Each time I flipped through the book, I would turn to that page first, and each time, the eagle’s magical essence 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.

Blog1_Harpy_Vojta.JPGDecades 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!

My twenty-five years as a wildlife biologist 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. She 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 Tambopata.  I hope readers will vicariously feel the excitement of watching the largest eagle in South America raise a chick from nestling to fledgling. In Tambopata, the harpy eagles function as characters rather than backdrop. They influence the behavior of the protagonist 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 nest tree just one hundred feet away.

 The fledgling leaned forward, searching for the right balance. 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 to its perch. The chick crouched into a begging pose, craned its neck backward, and began to cry.

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Many people have asked if I am Michelle, the harpy eagle researcher. The answer is, No. Although I have allowed Michelle to see harpy eagles through my eyes, and although she shares my respect for nature, Michelle has a much greater reputation as a raptor biologist, and she plunges into a lot more trouble. Here is a description of Michelle:

 In contrast to the elegant vestments of the eagle, Michelle worked in standard jungle attire—lightweight, olive-green clothing and calf-high rubber boots. She preferred to go hatless, claiming that the brim obstructed her view. She wore her hair in the style of her graduate student days—a long braid trailing down her back, though the original flaxen color was now heavily streaked with silver. She possessed a natural kind of beauty, with broad cheekbones acquired from the Swedish side of her family and gray-blue eyes that reflected a deep appreciation of the natural world. Her slim, athletic build spoke of a lifetime of outdoor pursuits.

So…how does Michelle get into trouble? 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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