As with all our big predators, Africa's largest raptor, the Martial Eagle, is an uncommon and exciting find when going on safari in Kruger National Park.
It prefers savannah and bushveld but can be found in areas ranging from semi-desert to woodland, across Africa, south of the Sahara. However it does not easily co-exist with man, so is hardly ever seen outside the larger conservation areas.
Both it's common and scientific names attest to it's aggressiveness and versatility as a hunter. I've personally witnessed an immature bird chasing down, unsuccessfully, a Steenbok antelope and there is at least one apocryphal story about human (baby) remains being found in a Martial Eagle nest.
One of the many reasons we don't see it very often is that it mostly hunts on the wing, soaring high above the savannah, searching for prey up to 6 kilometres away. However, occasionally we are lucky enough to find one perching, and even less seldom, perching close enough to the road so I can get a reasonable photograph!
This collection of photos are the only ones, from eight years guiding in Kruger, that I feel happy enough with publishing. Not a big choice – but enough I think, to portray this magnificent predator of the sky.
You'll notice quite a marked difference in pattern and colouration of the plumage. The adult bird of both sexes is the very dark brown above, white with dark brown spots underneath and the bright yellow eyes. The mature females are larger, more heavy than the males and apparently have more spots (now I know that I must start looking for this when I next spot one of these awesome birds!)
Juvenile/immature Martials are much paler overall, but I find the give-away to identifying one, apart from it's size, is the little plume on the back of their heads.
The next lot of pictures show just how diverse their diet can be.
The absolute best sighting EVER I have had of a Martial Eagle was this immature bird sitting on a Steenbok kill only a couple of metres from the road. This was in August 2008 in Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve. Whether it actually hunted the steenbok itself or managed to steal it from another predator I don't know. But it was so determined not to lose it's meal that despite being very uneasy it allowed me to take photos for several minutes before it tried to drag the carcase further from the road.
The prey preference of Martials does vary across different regions, but in Kruger the most common prey we see them with are reptiles.
This is not a particularly good picture of the eagle but you can see the long tail of the monitor lizard quite clearly.......... (February 2010, KNP)
During the Football World Cup (May 2010), our safari company was based up at Letaba Camp in the northern half of Kruger. We had this really great view of an immature Martial with what looked like a mongoose kill, along the banks of the Letaba River.
Unfortunately, it doesn't look as if we will have any increase in sightings in the foreseeable future. It's conservation status has moved from being classified as “near-threatened” in 2009, to “vulnerable” in 2013, and apparently it may soon be up-listed to “endangered”.
Habitat loss (nesting and prey), collisions with power lines and persecution by farmers are it's main threats. These, unfortunately are not going to reverse themselves easily.
If you would like to see more pictures and news of Martial Eagle conservation efforts, there is a interesting Facebook page - Martial Eagle Conservation - Kruger National Park.
The Raptor Guide of Southern Africa – Oberprieler and Cillie
Roberts Birds of Southern Africa
Beat About the Bush, Birds - Carnaby