Why you should care
Because who isn’t wowed by birds with a 7-foot wingspan?
It’s a bright Sunday morning and a small crowd has gathered on the lawn beneath the Witpoortjie Falls in Johannesburg. A Lycra-clad couple taking a break from their morning run, an anxious woman with a long lens camera, a Muslim family in traditional attire … “Do you think they’ll come today?” I ask Mariette Groenewoud, the duty volunteer from the Roodekrans Black Eagle Project. Just as she starts to make excuses about the unpredictability of nature, the enormous eagles soar into view, like jumbo jets preparing to land. After a few flybys the birds settle on the nest briefly, at one point even adding a twig to the messy stack.
When the pair of 12-pound Verreaux’s eagles is about, there’s a jovial atmosphere that feels like a sporting event or an impromptu guitar gig. Strangers speak to one another and volunteers are on hand to share their knowledge or let you peek through their powerful spotting scope. “Just the other day I had some people who’d lived in Jo’burg all their lives and had never even heard of the eagles,” says Johann van den Berg, an active volunteer. “They couldn’t believe their eyes.”
The huge birds have been nesting on the cliff face next to the falls in the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden for as long as anyone can remember — likely due to its proximity to ridges that harbored dassies, a small rodentlike creature that is their favorite prey. But as the city has sprung up around the gardens, there are fewer and fewer dassies, and the eagles have had to modify their prey to include guinea fowls, rock rabbits and even domestic chickens.
Within the first few days the older, stronger chick kills its weaker sibling.
Although Verreaux’s eagles mate for life, they will replace their companion if need be. “Last year was quite traumatic,” says van den Berg. “Emoyeni, our much-loved female who’d been around 40 years, just disappeared.” A new female has taken her place, but the jury’s still out on whether she and Thulane, the resident male, will manage to reproduce in 2017. “The first year is always dicey,” says Johann. “But I can assure you they are trying!”
Having some knowledge of the eagles’ breeding cycle helps when planning a visit. Nest building commences in late February and continues through April. Two eggs are laid in April or May, and the chicks usually hatch toward the end of May. But just one will leave the nest. Within the first few days the older, stronger chick kills its weaker sibling — a practice known as “Cainism,” after Cain and Abel — before finally fledging sometime in early September. The chick hangs around in the vicinity of the nest between September and December before finding his or her own way. So the only time you’re unlikely to see the eagles is in January and February.
When you go, be sure to take the divine riverine trail and visit the lakeside SASOL bird hide — a must for serious twitchers. The Eagle’s Fare Restaurant serves breakfasts (a full English will set you back $7), drinks and lunches in a lovely outdoor setting. On weekends the gardens are especially popular for picnicking (you can’t miss the train of staff wheeling trolleys laden with cooler-boxes and picnic hampers up the hill), while the 230-foot Witpoortjie Falls are impressive every day of the week.