It landed in a tree ahead of us, obscured by the branches of course. Later, seeing photographs of what must be the same bird taken with a far superior lens to mine, made me look at my pictures more closely and to revise my original hasty identification of it as a Booted Eagle. The more I look at them, the more I am inclined to believe that this is indeed an immature Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus).
Most visitors to a game park tend to be more interested in the animals than birds. Drivers of passing vehicles, seeing mine stopped and spotting my camera poking out of the window, would halt next to me and eagerly ask what I was looking at … their disappointment was palpable. The phrase ‘only a bird’ scribbled itself across the faces behind the benign smiles and head nodding. It seemed an age before I could inch my vehicle forward for a better view – the occupants of the others were totally charmed by zebra and red hartebeest drinking at the waterhole on the opposite side of the road. Just a hint of the crest is visible in this photograph.
Several birds of prey can be spotted during a visit to the Addo Elephant National Park, the most common being the Pale Chanting Goshawk, Jackal Buzzard, Yellow-billed Kite and the Black-shouldered Kite. Ones with such a powerful demeanour are not frequently observed: Martial Eagles are claimed to be among the most powerful eagles in Africa.
Although there is no mistaking its barred tail and huge talons in this photograph, this immature bird is creamy-white, bearing none of the dark streaky markings so definitive in the adult birds. They reach adult plumage after about seven years.
This is what the adult looks like – the photograph was taken five years ago in the Kruger National Park.
The Martial Eagle is currently classified with the status of vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN.