Verreaux’s eagles, previously called black eagles, are mountain specialists. They prefer to prey on another denizen of the high peaks – the rock hyrax, or dassie. This has meant that both species have developed a kind of relationship that has spurred evolution in quite tangible ways.

Did you know?

Verreaux’s eagles are adapted to mountain life and weather, and can fly in a gale.

When you are out in the high, craggy mountains of South Africa, keep a look out for two raptor shapes flying in close formation, like fighter jets above the peaks.

More than likely, these are Verreaux’s eagles, previously known as black eagles. This will be a bonded pair, and they will probably be hunting their favourite meal, the rock hyrax or dassie.

Seldom do you find raptors so addicted to one particular prey. This high degree of specialisation has led both species down an unusual evolutionary path. The Verreaux eagle has a hunting trick of attacking out of the sun, using its glare as cover.

But the dassie countered that with an evolutionary ploy of its own. It is the only animal that has developed a unique retinal shield that allows it to look directly at the sun. Confronted with wary, sun-gazing dassie sentries, the eagles had to come up with another trick.

Now Verreaux’s eagles almost invariably hunt in pairs. While one distracts the dassies, staying in sight, the other flies out of sight, only to attack unexpectedly.

The ball is now in the hyrax’s court and it has acted. From a height of 150 metres, an eagle can dive to Earth in three seconds, reaching a speed of around 180km/h. Now dassies seldom venture more than 12m away from shelter – a distance they can safely navigate at a sprint in 2.7 seconds.

You can see this daily evolutionary duel in many places, some of them surprisingly close to human settlements. There is a nesting pair of Verreaux’s eagles that can be easily seen close to the waterfall at Johannesburg’s Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden, for example. They have been breeding there since 1993.

There is also a breeding pair of Verreaux’s eagles close to the cable car on Table Mountain, and another in the Silvermine reserve, which is surrounded by suburbs.

Another favourite viewing place is the Karoo National Park near Beaufort West, where at a certain rocky clifftop you can look down on eagles hunting below you. The experience has moved several visitors to tears.

Travel tips & Planning info

How to get here

Any mountain habitat in South Africa is likely to yield sightings of Verreaux’s eagles. But some of the most reliable sightings are yielded at the Karoo National Park outside Beaufort West, the Swartberg mountains near Prince Albert, and the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens in Johannesburg.

Best time to visit

In early summer (October and November), it’s likely that Verreaux’s eagles may be nesting and later, feeding a chick. They’ll spend extensive time hunting.

Get around

On game drives or while driving yourself through the mountains, you may glimpse Verreaux’s eagles. Stop and enjoy the drama of their flight.

What will it cost

If you glimpse the birds from the road, enjoy 1 of South Africa’s great free spectacles.

What to pack

Whenever birdwatching, your essential equipment will always include a good pair of binoculars and a local bird book.