A few weeks ago, wildlife photographers Jeff Cremer of Rainforest Expeditions and Lucas Bustamante and Jaime Culebras of TropicalHerping, had the chance to film and photograph one of the rarest birds of the rainforest, the Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja). Not only did they see the eagle, they were able to climb into the canopy and observe two of them with its chick for two days. At one point they were so close they had to switch lenses just to get the entire bird in the frame.
"Its so rare it’s like seeing a Unicorn” says Jeff Cremer of Rainforest Expeditions. “When Jaime and Lucas sent me a message on Facebook saying that they found a Harpy Eagle nest I booked the next flight to the jungle.”
These eagles are the top predators of the Amazon sky. These massive birds of prey have a wingspan of six to seven feet and, when sitting, have the height of a five-year-old child. Coming equipped with talons the size of Grizzly Bear claws and a huge beak that dismembers monkeys and sloths with ease these creatures clock in as the worlds most powerful bird of prey.
Despite its large dimensions (a big female can be more than a meter in length and have a wingspan of more than two meters), actually seeing a Harpy Eagle in the wild is a major birding accomplishment. Unlike other birds of prey, the Harpy Eagle doesn’t soar but prefers to lurk in the canopy of the forest like some monstrous winged feline. It catches prey by surprise and goes after everything from monkeys to kinkajous and even Brocket Deer.
Their large territory also adds difficulty to the equation since a pair uses anywhere from 3,000 to 7,000 hectares of forest for hunting. When one is seen, it’s usually a brief glimpse of a massive bird flying away through the top branches of the forest.
"Birders spend their whole lives just to catch a glimpse of the Harpy Eagle. We were incredibly lucky to be able to sit in a tree for two days right next to a family of them. What makes that especially rare is the fact that a pair of eagles nest just once every two or even three years." Cremer said. "I've seen Jaguars, Tapirs and Puma and have even been the first person to film new species but seeing this incredible bird feed and interact with its chick was really amazing."
At around 4:30am while it was still dark, the team gathered up their photography gear and hiked into the jungle. After a 30 minute hike the team arrived at the tree and started preparing for the climb up. Using climbing harnesses and ascenders the team climbed twelve stories into a huge rainforest tree. What they saw, perched twelve stories high while strapped to a tree, was a chick nestled in a four-foot thick, five-foot wide fortress of branches and soft leaves. The chick was patiently waiting for its mother to return and eventually, she did.
"We were really surprised when she showed up. She swooped in without a sound while carrying a full grown Brazilian Porcupine in her claws," Cremer said. “She just sat there and watched while the baby ate it up.”
After they ate the Porcupine, the mother bird began calling until her mate, a huge male, came flying in to deliver half the body a sloth to the nest.
Fellow wildlife photographers and biologists Lucas Bustamante and Jaime Culebras of Tropical Herping have spent the better part of the last decade photographing wildlife in the Ecuadorian rainforest and were with Cremer to photograph and film the eagle.
"In my country, Ecuador, there is an Amazonian tribe called the Huaorani," Bustamante explained. "They believe that they are descendants of the Jaguar and the Harpy Eagle. They worship these two animals as their gods and view them as being very important to the jungle. After being face to face with this bird it is easy to see why they believe that. Finding myself in the jungle with that mythological creature, was like being in front of a legendary Griffin."
"This rest of the trip was like paradise," said Jaime Culebras, "We were able to photograph two Jaguars, a Puma with her baby, a family of Otters playing a few meters from our boat, hundreds of macaws eating right in front of our cameras, four species of monkeys on trails and dozens of peccaries visiting the lodge just about every day. Adding the pair of this amazing birds feeding their young in the nest made this trip a dream come true!”