August 20, 2019

Wings from the past

I heard it first before its giant shadow fell across me. Not the whoosh of wings you’d think an eagle would make, as it strikes for the kill, dagger talons outstretched. This was more a rustle of feathers, like the whisper of a gentle breeze brushing the grass of a paddock, or the canopy of the rainforest. With slow, deliberate flaps of its wings, the eagle bent its head to observe my every move, not more than 10 metres above me. Its eyes were firmly fixed on mine.

I felt that I could reach out and touch it.

Two metres of wingspan and a ferocious beak just above my head: I was unnerved. I ducked and felt the urge to run, but I stood my ground, gazing up at this giant bird, a combination of fear and awe rooting me to the spot.

As the eagle passed above me I expected it to merely fly on but, rising slightly, it splayed its wings, the outer long, delicate feathers trembling in the wind. It had angled into the breeze coming in off the Southern Ocean to the west; hovering above me, seemingly motionless, swaying and pitching to keep in balance.

A few days earlier I had headed to Tasmania’s wild north-west to get up close and personal to nature, but this was a little too close, and a little too personal. It was one of those moments when, despite a shelf-load of birding field guides back home, you realise that at heart you are an urban animal. Your habitat is the cosiness of the suburb.

It was lonely out there. I was three kilometres from the nearest road and at least 10 from the nearest human home but I had felt someone, something, watching me. I scanned the spiky, untidy coastal heathland for eyes, or ears. A wallaby, perhaps, or possum or pademelon.

All the while, high above and hidden in the glare of the sun, a wedge-tailed eagle followed. The male eagle had picked me out, stalked me and now snuck up behind me, from the direction I had come.

A bird from the past.

The sighting of an eagle had not entered my thoughts when I set out to walk the trail south from Marrawah towards the Arthur River. Tasmanian devils had been my focus and I was in the north-west to spend time on a farm where it is possible to watch devils at war and peace at night.

Something planned and expected, though, is not the same as something coming, literally, out of the blue. Not that “wedgies’’ are new to me, a new bird for my checklist of birds spotted. I see them frequently crossing the Hobart suburb where I live. There I gaze in wonder without a tinge of nervousness. On broad wings they cross the sky between the two valleys framing my home, untroubled by angry forest ravens that rise to send them on their way.

The wedgie brings that place we call “the wild’’ to our suburb. The eagle is the lush-green pasture in spring, the snow-capped peak in winter, the mountain scree coated with early-morning frost. The eagle is the swaying swamp gum, a tumbling stream in the rainforest. The eagle is a winged wonder that lifts our spirits, urges us to fly with it, it distracts us on our way to the office, to tell us that life exists beyond the computer screen, beyond the pressures that rule the human daily life.

Today the eagle may be symbolic of that world beyond the picket fence, the hedgerow and car port but in other ages it has carried a different kind of symbolism on its broad wings.

When Aborigines and eagles shared these lands, the silhouette of the eagle was etched into every horizon. In some Aboriginal cultures, the eagle was written into the night sky, the stars of the Southern Cross depicting a talon or the eagle itself.

The Aborigines who walked this track before me had known the eagle. It would have followed them, too, casting them in its shadow. It had been a witness to Aboriginal history for more than 40,000 years; fraternity and unity in a hard place by the sea. It would have followed them on their journeys south to trade for the hard rock to make their tools and weapons, and their migration inland when the fish weren’t running, or seals to be hunted had not come.

Before the eagle appeared on my walk I had seen evidence of Aboriginal settlement all around me. There were deep depressions in banks of sea-polished stones where Aboriginal hunters had lain in wait to ambush seals. There were hut hollows on raised ground just above the beach where the first Australians anchored shelters of bent tea-tree branches and kangaroo hides. The vantage point gave them a sweeping view of rock pool and beach, so they could watch over their children playing in the ocean, or watch for enemies.

The eagle witnessed modern human history, too; the arrival of the first European explorers, and pioneers and settlers. George Augustus Robinson, charged with rounding up the last of the Aborigines for transhipment to islands in Bass Strait, passed this way, as did his fellow traveller, Truganini, believed to be the last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine.

I had spent a restless night at Kings Run near Marrawah, a former cattle property that is now a tourism venture operated by Geoff King who introduces visitors to not only the world of the endangered Tasmanian devil but the wider, beautiful environment in which they live in this part of the world.

The 214ha property of coastal heathland, tussock grass and sedge is washed on one side by wild ocean and after watching devils most of the night, and then being kept awake by their fighting under the hut in which I was sleeping, I had risen at dawn to go in search of birds.

I had in mind white-fronted chats combing the seashore for food, sooty oystercatchers on the rocks and, in the coastal heath, tawny-crowned honeyeaters. An eagle was not on my radar.

The wedgie had stayed with me for 20 minutes, before appearing to lose interest. At last it allowed the sea breeze to lift it higher, the eagle veering out over the wild ocean, then banking to come around in a wide sweep, a silhouette against the sun, and in a blink it was gone.

The thought occurred to me that Geoff King feeds roadkill to eagles, as he does devils on the nights be operates his Kings Run devil viewing spectacle, and a little later when he came to pick me up in his ute I mentioned the eagle sighting, still excited by it.

He doesn’t feed eagles and described his own encounters with them when he drove cattle on horseback. They would follow him for hours. No doubt the rumble of hundreds of cattle on the move, the pounding of horse shoes in the dry earth, would have flushed wallabies and pademelons, and smaller marsupials for the eagles to swoop on.

The King family who settled these lands in the late 19th century introduced cattle, and later drove the herds 300 kilometres south to the booming mining settlement of Queenstown. Geoff King remembers the cattle runs in their later stages, when the distances were not so vast, trains taking the cattle to the miners from railheads in the north. As if drawn back to these times, by talk of eagles and horses, he tells me to “mount up’’ when it’s time to climb into his ute to leave.

Before the cattle runs, Aboriginal hunters would have also disturbed and flushed animals and provided an added bonus for the eagles: discarded carcasses of skin and bone for the eagles to scavenge. Certainly Geoff King has encountered problems with eagles stealing the roadkill he has put aside for the devil “restaurant “ at night.

I wanted to believe the eagle encounter was spiritual, we were fellow travellers meeting on a mysterious, magical journey. It was something of a letdown to discover I was merely a meal ticket. There was a bond, though; a fraternity. The meeting of eagle and man had started 40,000 years ago and over the millennia the knowledge that man could provide food directly and indirectly had been planted and locked in the eagle’s DNA. In that time the eagle had learned humans were not a threat, they were not to be feared.

A bond that had survived for eons, that had pre-dated the last ice age, had been broken in the past 200 years when settlers from Europe came to these lands. Suddenly the eagle was seen as an enemy and paid the price. It was hunted mercilessly, and killed in its thousands, across the entire continent.

The eagle had gotten a bad press and a price was on its head in bounty payments for the harm it did, supposedly, to the sheep industry.

Tales of eagle slaughter and carnage are commonplace, and horrific. I remember seeing an ABC documentary on sheep barons in Queensland, lamenting the break-up of their vast properties on government directive. The footage had scenes of the graziers enjoying the good times in the 1950s, barbeques and country horse race meetings. It also showed an eagle cull: farmers beating eagles to death with baseball bats. The eagles had been ensnared in foot traps as carcass bait. In Tasmania poisoning was the preferred method of eagle control. The latter method was also used to kill Tasmanian devils.

Many farmers maintain to this day that eagles take live lambs in great number, although research does not bear this out. The fact that eagles are frequently seen on sheep carcasses does not prove they were the actual instruments of death for these farm animals. Because there are no vultures on the Australian continent, the wedge-tail eagle, together with being a skilful and powerful hunter, fills the niche of scavenger.

The Tasmanian sub-species of wedge-tailed eagle is Australia’s biggest with a wingspan that can reach 2.5 metres but it is endangered, with only between 200 and 230 breeding pairs left in the wild. At present the mortality rate from accidents is outstripping the reproduction rate, putting the eagles in peril in the near term.

Eagles bring out the best and worst in people, especially so in the modern Australia.

Tasmanian eagles meeting turbulence in man’s world, either maimed on farms or on roads, once found themselves receiving a little tender, loving care at Risdon Prison from some of the state’s most hardened criminals.

An irresistible metaphor took flight when the Parks and Wildlife Service set up a raptor rehabilitation centre within the grounds of the prison: the raptors behind bars longing for the open skies, to fly free without restriction. Release for rehabilitated eagles came much quicker for the raptors than for most of their carers.

When the prison aviary was closed a few years back, to allow redevelopment and expansion of the jail, an individual who loves birds of prey provided the eagles with a new home, building a set of the biggest aviaries in the southern hemisphere with discarded fish-farm nets, to give injured eagles a fighting chance.

Rehabilitated wedge-tailed and sea eagles are now released, with the aid of a band of volunteers, at the rate of about six a year.

Today in a more enlightened age the eagle is not so misunderstood and maligned. More people now want to see it crossing their skies than see it killed.

Evidence of shooting and poisoning, and acts of vandalism to nests, are becoming less frequent but as one threat dies another emerges. Eagles fall victim to increasing traffic on Tasmanian roads, and die flying into powerlines. The emergence of wind-farms poses a new threat, with eagles increasingly coming to grief in the wind-farm turbines.
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On the drive back to Hobart from Marrawah I notice a sign I didn’t see on the outward journey, a plea to drivers to watch out for eagles feeding on roadkill along a stretch of road near Smithton.  And as soon as I have parked the car in the car port of my home, I look for eagles in the sky. In the garden I establish a lesser connection with the wild, lesser in size if not significance. As I walk, scattering leaves that have fallen on the lawn, a grey fantail seeks me out and follows me. He hunts the insects disturbed by my plodding feet, his long, fanned tail in a shuttlecock. Then a male fairy-wren flits in to join the fantail in a merry dance as they scamper across the lawn in chase of insects, rising and swooping in a theatrical dive on gnats and mosquitos. In the sunlight filtered through the overhanging wattles, it is a glorious sight.

My thoughts, however, remain in Marrawah. They are with the lone eagle and my fleeting, symbiotic connection with it, a connection that I still believe is not of science and circumstance but of the soul. I recall in fine detail each of the precious minutes the eagle stayed with me, before it drifted to the east, rising higher, until it was suddenly gone.

It had come from the past and was, hopefully, flying into the future.


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