The nest on this ranch has a harpy eagle chick in it every second year. Or third year, depending on whether the chick is female. This chick — our chick, the one I named Bonita — is female. That means her parents will keep providing her with some food, protecting her, as she learns to hunt and fend for herself, for up to two and a half years. Then they’ll rest before breeding again. They only breed in the dry season, when it’s easier for the parents to find prey. This tree has been a nesting tree for about a decade.
When the chick is the size of this Bonita — about six months — the parents leave it alone for two or three days at a time, coming back only briefly to drop off an armadillo or some other succulent treat. (“That nest must be squalid with armadillo,” said finch.) This valley is so deforested now, with cattle and banana trees and a limestone mine glowing and sirening just down the road, that the hunting is poor. “It’s hard to find monkeys or sloths,” said our guide, Eduardo. “They don’t usually eat armadillo.” “Neither would I,” I said.
Sometimes, the parents never come back, and the chicks need to figure out how to fledge themselves, how to hunt, how to wander vast territory to bump into other harpy eagles. They’re the biggest, most powerful raptor in the Americas, but it feels… Lonely.
Bonita is a brave little thing. Last night, we watched her gather her powerful wings about her, pause and dive out of her tree, practicing her flying, landing in the tree next. Where she paused, teetering on a too flimsy branch, as stuck as a 14 month old human who hauled herself proudly up the steps and then was befuddled by how to get down. Dusk, roosting tree out of reach, she practiced her range finding, bobbing and twisting her neck about. We left her there at dark, wondering how she’d manage a night on that teetery perch.
I walked back to the lodge in the dark, leaving Finch and Eduardo looking for spectacled owl. Waiting for the moonrise over the ridge, feeling my way past herds of skittish white cattle, the ones with the strange spine humps. Feeling them circle eerily around me, opening only slightly as I advanced toward their dark forms.
This morning, at dawn, Bonita was gone. Not in her nesting tree, not in the one we’d left her on. “maybe she is lying down in the nest,” said Tania, the woman in charge of eagle conservation, who happened to be here when we were. “it was a cold night.” but we watched, and she and her would-be acolyte watched, and the other birding group that arrived last night camped out in the clearing all morning and watched. We walked around to the back of the tree, slithered through the fence to the forest, inspected the net Tania had strung around the bottom of the tree to catch what falls from the nest. No Bonita. “I think she is stronger than we think,” said the optimistic Tania as she folded herself a cheese sandwich from the breakfast and ran for her taxi to catch a plane back to Manaus. “She’ll fly back.”
Most birders come here hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the adults. Harpy eagles are “top ten” in the world for most birders to see. I’m not really that kind of birder. I give names to the birds I feel an affinity with, take against birds for no reason, prefer the quirky, am haphazard about lists and not concerned with “cleaning up ” by going after every bird there is to find. But I am now so anxious for Bonita’s parents to come back, to find her, to guide her back to her roosting tree.