Quick copyright notice: I went a long way to get these photos, and all rights to their use and publication are reserved by me.
What inspires us like the sight of a Harpy Eagle or a Crested Eagle learning to fly?
Over a couple of days in May 2019 in Darien, Panama, I was lucky enough to encounter a fledgling from each of these species at just the right moment to make some special memories.
I’m not here to yank anybody’s crank and pretend these are great photos. My equipment — a Nikon Coolpix P610 and a Samsung Galaxy 8 — was not anybody’s idea of what Nat Geo would require to record your adventures in forest birding on the cusp of the rainy season.
However, as a birder, I always choose my gear with one primary objective in mind — it must not get in the way of the birding. Carrying and operating the camera can’t distract from actually observing the bird, so it has to be lightweight and fairly simple to use.
As far as tourist photos go, I think they do the job to bring back rich memories of those two magical days in May 2019.
Three of the photos were digi-scoped using my phone and my friend’s spotting scope. The vignetting from the scope is really obvious in the top photo, but I’m using that picture anyway because the crying baby eagle is so adorable.
The bottom photo of the adult Harpy Eagle was snapped using my camera from the water where I sat in our flatboat.
The Crested Eagle’s Story
The crying white and black fledgling in the feature photo is a Crested Eagle. We believe the baby fledged just that morning a few hours before we arrived. The local guides had visited the site a day or two before, and all was well. Then, suddenly, we arrived to find an empty nest.
As we poked around wondering if something terrible had happened, the adult male Crested Eagle in the second photo appeared. He was clutching a prey item that he obviously wished to deliver.
(My amateur photograph doesn’t show it clearly, but this prey item was a bright orange kinkajou. The professional photographers with me got incredible shots that made it easy for us to identify later.)
Anyhoo, this caring father was in a tizzy when he discovered there was no baby in the nest to feed. He flew around calling for two solid hours. (Yes, I timed it.) Long before the end of the drama, we watchers were secretly convinced that Baby had been eaten or poached.
At long last, determination won the day. Baby woke up and called Daddy in, and we followed the trail to observe that 1) Baby had successfully fledged and was in fine feather, and 2) Daddy successfully dropped off the meal.
A wonderful demonstration of devotion.
A Harpy Eagle Gets His Wings
The beginning of the rainy season closed a lot of trails, but a couple of days later, we were able to make our way to a known Harpy Eagle nest. When we arrived, the baby was there, but the parents were nowhere to be seen.
The local guides knew when the baby had last been fed, and they didn’t expect a new food drop-off any time soon. By the time Baby is close to fledging, a lot of the forest knows where the Harpy Eagles are. Therefore, the parents need to hunt farther and farther afield.
In theory, these absences also give the youngster time to develop a little independence.
This young Harpy Eagle really tickled my funny bone. For one thing, you see the crest? He just loved tossing that crest around.
I’m the prince of this forest and you’re not.
He also spent a lot of time crying and calling. This bad boy wasn’t interested in humping his way out of the nest and exploring on his own. He’ll leave that nonsense to the likes of the Crested Eagle.
Instead, he called and called. Flounced his crest. Flapped his wings. Called some more.
He had an absolutely hilarious routine where he flapped his wings but didn’t fly. I used to see this routine from my Peach-fronted Conures all the time.
I’m just a bitty baby. Can’t be expected to fly. Feed me. Feed me. Come here, and put the food right in my mouth, darn it!
Then, at one point, he flapped so hard that he screwed up and actually got enough lift to clumsily fly down to a lower branch. You never saw a bird look so shocked to discover he could fly.
Know what he did next?
I never would have predicted it.
He started holding his wing funny, and he screamed some. Like he’s somehow crippled himself. For a minute, he had me going. I wondered what we were going to do if he was hurt.
Because of the digi-scoping, you can’t tell how big that tree was, but it was huge. We weren’t going to be able to climb up that tree. Much less climb down again with a spoiled rotten brat of a Harpy Eagle.
For more about why climbing trees to investigate Harpy Eagle nests is a positively terrifying idea, you can watch the movie Jungle Eagle by PBS. Or you can just take my word for it that an angry adult Harpy Eagle has everything she needs to take your head off.
Fortunately, no daring rescues were going to be required.
The baby eagle's hurt act was a big old fake-out.
Eventually, Prince Brat of the Harpy Eagles got tired of creating drama. He flew back to the nest, and this time he didn’t stumble at all. He undershot a little, yes, but he had no trouble scrambling the rest of the way back up.
Baby’s first flight.
A Birder's Note
In case you're wondering, I’m not saying the baby Harpy Eagle was a “he” because I’m a sexist who thinks all males are spoiled rotten masters of learned helplessness. Admittedly, there are a lot of Southern ladies who think that way, but I hope I’m not one of them.
I actually have a reason for the “he/his.” As with many eagle species, the female Harpy Eagles are substantially larger than the males. Knowing the age of this youngster, my expert was willing to state the size and proportions suggested a male.
There are some very large female Harpy Eagles out there. The day before, we'd enjoyed a lengthy observation of one of them attempting to take a juvenile Common Black-Hawk. She might well have succeeded if the entire local area, including one of the Black-Hawk’s parents, and any number of shrieking Howler Monkeys, weren’t on the job ready to scream bloody blue murder everywhere she went.
"Two Baby Eagles Fledge in Darien" was originally published on June 14, 2022, in Wildlife Trekker, a Medium publication. You can now read it here without encountering a paywall.
About the Creator
Seeker, traveler, birder, crystal collector, photographer. I sometimes visit the mysterious side of life. Author of "The Moldavite Message" and "Crystal Magick, Meditation, and Manifestation."