I just got into my vehicle and drove from Centurion to Meyers Farm to ask Hans a huge favour!
During 2003 whilst working on our Hyrax Operation Project – capturing hyrax and reintroducing them into suitable habitat within the greater home range of the Roodekrans eagles – I received a call from Dr Aldo Berruti, then CEO of BirdLife SA requesting me to investigate a call he had received from a lady residing in Lynmeyer directly opposite the Klipriviersberg Ridge along the N12 Southern Bypass. The reason for his call being that pair of “big black birds” was seen by a lady named Audrey Preddy. The following morning I gave Audrey a call and we made an appointment to visit her on the forth coming Sunday. We set up our telescope within the parking lot of their town house complex and waited and just after 13h00 a pair of “beeeg black birds” aka Verreaux’s eagles skirted the ridge flying from west to east on Meyers Farm (MF) a few relaxed figures of eight and then disappeared out of sight. Asking Audrey to be on the lookout for them, she wrote down what she observed and emailed it to me. The next day I phoned Aldo and broke the news that the “beeeg black birds” were in fact Verreaux’s eagles – I had a feeling that Aldo almost fell off his perch with excitement – he requested that we keep tabs on them and possibly launch a conservation observation group. At the time we could not comply with his request, but we promised him frequent feedback of which he was very appreciative.
It was only during 2007 after the finalization of the hyrax capture/relocation project that we could be spending more time with the eagles. During the same year, we also became affiliated to the Birds of Prey Program of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, which made it possible to monitor and observe the birds in earnest. After all, Audrey also kept us well informed and on a weekly basis sending us emails and keeping us up to date!
Unaware of where the eagles were hanging out, unsure if they were breeding, let alone where their nest may be (if at all), we had many questions with very few answers. We ventured onto MF and introduced ourselves to the late Hans Meyer, owner of the farm – what a pleasant man! Having sat down with him, he gave us as much information available to him and although he had not located a possible nest, he did say that the eagles came onto his farm about five years ago (2003) and they had been there ever since. He gave us carte blanche to visit the farm whenever we desired and go wherever we needed to go, an appreciative blessing as many farmers are only too wary of trespassers.
Every Sunday was spent at MF and having recruited the voluntary services of Samantha Meyer (not a relative) and two years later, Phillip Tarboton, we really got to grips with the eagle pair. Both Samantha and Phillip resided in Kensington, which was not too distant from the farm and they could cast a watchful eye over them. It took us two Sundays to find out where their nest was despite the eagles trying their utmost to lead us up the garden path. Although they knew that we were watching them, they even built a mock nest on a simple and easily accessible ledge in an attempt to divert our attention from and interest in them – sneaky!
When we found that they were nesting in the first tier of the nearby 210KV Fordsburg/Eiger power pylon, we let them be and kept our observation distance to at least 600-800m observing mostly via telescope. At no time did we want to intrude and jeopardise their vulnerability mainly because they were breeding in an Eskom pylon!
A mere 100m north of the extremely noisy Reading Interchange slipway heading towards South Hills, Steeldale and Tulisa Park, the power line most probably became their nest since 2003 as and based on previous research, there was absolutely no suitable nest anywhere along entire approx. 14km KRS extent obligating them to nest within the dangerous pylon.
Despite the slowly encroaching development within the neighbouring Meyersdal Eco Estate (MEE), gradually reducing immediate hunting habitat and prey availability, the steady influx of vagrants, who live within the hills opposite the N12 Southern Bypass and the South Hills buffer zone, snare the prevailing resources of wildlife which is also the same prey base of the eagles. Although we estimated that there may be as many as 7000 hyrax within 10 sq. km of the pylon nest. Overall, along the entire ridge system there may be as many as 15000 > that is enough to feed at least thirty pairs of eagles for life should they hunt 350-400 hyrax per pair per annum!
Whenever one is under the impression that all is well and the eagles are untouchable, strange occurrences stick their necks out in that during the 2008 breeding season, and for some unknown reason, the pylon nest was destroyed in its entirety when the nest was breached forcing an 80-day-old juvenile to fledge prematurely! We searched everywhere to try and locate the eagle, doing ridge walks with 5 volunteers x 50m apart back and forth all along the South Hills buffer zone and inclusive of the entire MEE ridge system all the way from the R59 to the Comaro Street with no sign at all. Having become quite desperate, we recruited the services of the Green Scorpions who executed private investigations at all the “muti” sites within the greater Johannesburg and thereto, producing zero! Assuming us to the fact that the juvenile was lost forever, we surmised that the eagle may have been stolen by some pet collector. The modus operandi of a pet seeker would probably not demolish the entire nest, but you never know especially considering the life threatening dangers of retrieving a bird from a 210 Kv power line. It was only much later, when we were informed that Eskom were the culprits and when questioned about their involvement, they were quick to deny, but also quickly adding that they may have played a part in it. Open questions that remained un- answered for several weeks thereafter and as mentioned previously, Eskom will not tolerate any structure of whatever within their pylons, this was the only conclusive evidence we were able to build on. As far as we know, Eskom was probably involved, we could not prove it as such, but adding it all up, it certainly made a lot more sense as to why they did it and sadly without our advice and or care for the adult eagles and their offspring!
Our juvenile was still missing and having been unsuccessful locating it, as a last resort, we approached the contractors of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project who were having a site meeting just off the slipway, asking them to be on the lookout for a juvenile “black eagle” showing them photos of what it looked like and also what the adults resembled. Undoubtedly, all five men were dumbfounded as they never in their wildest dreams would have thought to see eagles along the highway!? We showed them the destroyed nesting site with all the sticks scattered under the pylon as well as a plethora of hyrax bones and skulls that fell on the ground during the destruction process. We noticed an awkward surprise on their faces as one gent said that he thought the birds were crows – I wanted to give him a clip around the ears! They asked me for my contact number and lo and behold I received a call during the afternoon by Toni Niemand, Contracts Director of Siavaya Highway Construction JV (SHCJV), who wanted to meet us at the site office the following morning at 10h00, to which we agreed.
Toni was accompanied by Environmental Consultant, Colleen Clark of Group 5 Construction, who asked numerous questions about the breeding behaviour of the eagles and why they were breeding in a pylon and not in a tree? They also asked if their continued blasting would prove negative to the eagles as they were blowing the area to pieces a mere 200-300m from the pylon nest. Long term stress levels would probably have a negative side effect to the pair and hence the reason why we could not locate the juvenile at the time. Toni and Colleen were visibly disturbed by my story and Toni asked me what they (Siavaya) could do to help the eagles? Without hesitation I responded by saying that we actually require an artificial nesting platform. He asked me for a sketch and as I was still smoking at the time, I scribbled a sketch on the reverse side of a Peter Stuyvesant pack of 30’s showing him what we had in mind. Later in the afternoon, I faxed him a proper sketch with a whole bunch of notes on it that included the overall height, basket size and shape plus additional fittings and finishes. He called me at the office, thanked me and said he’d be in touch.
I had not heard from Toni for an entire week and I was getting a tad restless and stressful because if we could pull this off successfully it was going to be BIG and much BIGGER yet for the eagles!
I remember the song that The Beatles sang, called “Eight Days a Week” and it made perfect sense as Toni phoned me on the eighth day to let me know that SHCJV were going ahead and that Group 5 would procure the material, UWP Consulting Engineers would design the mast, Vital Steel Projects would fabricate it all and Sarens SA would supply the 35 ton 6×6 all terrain mobile crane to hoist the entire mast into the sky bolting it all together and all we had to do contribute was to build the nest in the basket provided while that section of the mast was still on the ground! I was so delighted and relieved that I just got into my vehicle and drove from Centurion to MF to ask Hans a huge favour!