In the hours prior to this photograph being taken, Sam Croft had walked 15 kilometres through the Mundaring hills beyond Perth. It was around 30 degrees. He was hot, sweaty and had battled grass tree spines, ticks and March flies, and yet, check out that grin.
“The smile says it all,” Sam says. He and his two companions had found what they were looking for; a Wedge-tailed Eagle nest with two chicks in situ.
“We waited for a short while to make observations of what was happening in the nest and surrounding area but were keen to get to the base of the nest as they have extremely strong, long-distance vision. We try and make the data collection a quick and efficient process. Everything we do is about limiting the time spent ‘in the zone’ of the nest; having a clear action plan before approaching the tree, knowing individual roles/tasks and maintaining a calm and quiet presence – this is all to minimise any stress to the birds especially as it is a highly sensitive area.”
The chicks were two of 14 that Sam and Kristal (a bird trainer) helped weigh, measure and band during a three-month trip to Central and Western Australia assisting ornithologist and Wedge-tailed Eagle researcher, Simon Cherriman.
It was a golden opportunity for the Bendigo Outdoor Education & Nature Tourism student, whose goal is to work in conservation. Not to mention someone with a penchant for tree climbing. “As a kid mum was always telling me to ‘get down from that tree’,” Sam says, adding the years of practice stood him in good stead for his eagle experience – as did undertaking the subject Rock Environments (rock climbing) at La Trobe.
So, what’s it like to climb a tree and peer into the nest of Australia’s largest raptor? “You’ve asked me a question that brings so many amazing emotions to me and sends shivers down my spine,” Sam says. “Words just cannot do it justice. From the ground all you see is a bundle of sticks but as soon as you get up to the nest you realise the sheer size of it, sometimes the size of a couch! They have a beautiful soft lining of fresh, green foliage and we almost always see the remains of what they have recently eaten.”
The project Sam contributed to is part of Murdoch University PhD student Simon Cherriman’s study of how the Wedge-tailed Eagle population uses the West Australian landscape. This involves assessing nesting density and investigating juvenile movements. The last significant research in WA was carried out by the CSIRO almost 50 years ago. “The research is quite aged and there are large gaps in the knowledge, so Simon’s work will help fill the void,” Sam says. “One of our key focus was fitting eagle nestlings with Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme metal and colour leg-bands, which give them a unique identity and increases the likelihood they will be seen and recorded again in the future.” With the assistance Sam, Kristal and other volunteers at Matuwa and in Perth, a total of 38 Wedge-tails were banded in 2018.
The team was also looking for evidence of breeding and diet, and where there were chicks present, they took measurements of the head, beak, cere (fleshy skin enclosing the nostril), legs, foot span and hind-talon after fitting the leg bands. “It’s such a special moment,” Sam says. “You’re sitting and holding this bird of prey and you can feel its heart beat against yours and it’s going, you’re not my mum or dad, what are you doing to me? But it’s giving you all its trust and allowing us to do what we need to do for research.”
For Sam, the memorable moments are rich and varied, starting with his arrival in the Indigenous Protected Land of Matuwa. He and Kristal had driven more than 2000 kilometres from Alice Springs on the corrugated Great Central Highway and were almost at Matuwa on dusk, when they came across an eagle on the roadside. Unfortunately, it had been hit and killed by a vehicle around half an hour prior. But its death was not in vain: they picked up the great bird and it later created an educational opportunity for members of the Martu Community and the Wiluna Remote Community School.
“It was phenomenal to see their reaction to this incredible raptor, a totem bird for some, and that they usually only see as a black speck thousands of metres above their heads,” Sam says. It was a fortuitous learning tool for their first week in the community, dubbed ‘Warlu-wurru Week’ (Eagle Week), and a chance to teach the local students about Australia’s largest raptor.
From there the researchers spent time in a helicopter, checking nests from above before coming back down to earth to scour the landscape and climb the trees. “I knew a little bit, but you never learn as much in the classroom as you do when you’re out in the field,” Sam says. “That’s the amazing part, and why I was even more touched when invited to go. That’s the sort of learner I am.”
Sam says Simon’s research is shedding light on many previous unknown habits of the eagles. He’s recorded them flying at altitudes of 6800 meters above sea level and moving thousands of kilometres across Australia in a matter of weeks. “The exciting part is it’s throwing up more questions than it’s answering,” Sam says, adding his time with the Wedge-tails is far from over. “I knew I wanted to get into conservation, but I didn’t think I’d enjoy researching a specific species like this as much as I did. To be around someone like Simon who knows so much about Wedge-tailed Eagles let alone everything else regarding our environment and ecology is just so inspiring.”
“To find myself in an Indigenous community around traditional ways was also absolutely incredible. Everyone should get the chance to do that. I realise how fortunate I am and it’s something I’ve reflected on and am sharing with the fellow students and staff at La Trobe. To get up close to a species that we don’t really know much about, is such a special experience.”
Learn more about the work Sam contributed to here.
If any Wedge-tailed Eagles are sighted in the wild with bands around their ankles, please inform Simon Cherriman through his website
The video below shows a sight very few people have the privilege of witnessing; a sibling pair of eaglets in the natal nest, approximately four-six weeks old. You can see the size difference (sexual dimorphism) even at this young age. The female at the front and the younger male at the back. Also captured here is footage of the process to fit the juvenile eagles with a harmless leg band that is fixed with two rivets. Each band has a unique number on it to allow for each individual to be identified in the wild.