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 2 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 1 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 1 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 3 seconds, reaching a speed of around 180km/h. Now dassies seldom venture more than 12 metres 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.