The entirely apt scientific name of the wedge-tailed eagle is aquila audax: respectively, these Latin words mean eagle, and bold and daring. A grand official name befitting this magnificent bird. The spangled drongo (a less spectacular Australian native bird), can only wish for such a title. The wedge-tail is the largest raptor in Australia, and one of the largest eagles in the world.
They are found throughout mainland Australia and Tasmania. The adult female is larger than the adult male. The wingspan of an adult is typically around 2.3m (approx. 7’6″), they stand about 1m tall (approx. 3’3″) and can weigh up to 5kgs. There are reports of wingspans of 2.8m (approx. 9’2″). They have large powerful talons, and feathery ‘trousers’ covering their legs. Their colour vision is superior to that of humans. They also have very sophisticated binocular vision (also superior to that of humans) enabling them to pinpoint prey from great distances. They build very large nests.
They are monogamous, and very territorial, especially in breeding season. Their life expectancy is around 20 years, with recorded instances of some living much longer. They often hunt in pairs. Being such powerful fliers they can lift and fly with prey equalling their own weight (up to 5kgs): source: https://www.wildlife.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/115343/Wedge-tailed-Eagle.pdf).
Wedge-tailed eagles get darker as they get older. They are strong fliers and highly skilled at soaring to significant altitudes (6,000 feet and sometimes higher) using thermals.
Airborne encounters with wedge-tailed eagles
The brief reference in my log to flying over a wedge-tailed eagle and maintaining height is a reference to me using the circling eagle directly ahead and not far below me to identify the location of a thermal. I maintained height for a short time in the thermal as the eagle continued to climb to my height (and then beyond). But for the three to four 360° turns I flew in an attempt to stay in the thermal, I was at the same height as the circling eagle. The words ‘great sight’ are quite inadequate to describe the experience of flying in close proximity to and sharing a thermal with an eagle soaring with wings at full stretch. That he continued to climb while I did the opposite and landed in the paddocks below is beside the point.
Almost two years after sharing a thermal briefly with an eagle at Ben Nevis, I had another encounter with a wedge-tailed eagle while flying my hang glider (the Enterprise Wings Combat 152), this time in the Mallee in the north-west of Victoria in midsummer. It was a very hot day with a pre-frontal strong and gusty nor’westerly wind. We were staying in the area for a week of summer flying, tow-launching on a long rope towed by a car in the huge dusty paddocks near Birchip. Nobody launched until late in the afternoon when the wind and willy-willys had settled down. I launched around 4pm, released the tow rope at 900′ above the paddock, found a thermal and climbed out heading roughly south. I was heading towards Wycheproof and landed in a paddock 4km south of the town after a flight of a little over an hour. This was my personal best cross-country distance of 38km.
Staying airborne was a matter of locating a thermal (there were plenty of them), finding the centre of it where the lift was strongest, climbing in the core of the thermal until it either petered out or drifted downwind of the road I was following to Wycheproof, then finding another thermal and repeating. At one stage early in the flight I was down to 1700 feet above the paddocks before I found the next thermal, which turned out to be quite strong. I climbed in it until I was 6,550 feet above the small town of Dumosa.
While slowly descending through 6,000′ or so, a dark bird in the distance ahead of me and higher than me, dived and flew straight at me at speed. It was a large wedge-tailed eagle. As it neared me it extended its wings full span, pulled up squawking angrily with its legs and talons extended. I thought it was going to hit me or the glider. It all happened very fast. I have friends who have had eagles strike the sail or the the rigging wires of their hang glider in flight (eagle and pilot fortunately disengaged unscathed on each occasion). But the eagle banked away sharply and there was no contact. It disappeared as quickly as it came. I suppose it was an intimidatory display in defence of its territory. At 6,000 feet above the ground, the sky looked huge and the farming land below looked vast. I can only guess at the size of the territory this eagle was laying claim to rule.
The eagle achieved its aim. I haven’t returned to that part of the sky.
While flying from Marriners lookout some years ago at about the altitude shown in the photo, a resident wedge-tailed eagle took up position behind my hang glider. I spotted him when I was checking over my shoulder as I commenced a gentle 180° turn while gaining height in good ridge lift. I did a few small turns and checked behind me again – the eagle was doing exactly the same turns as I was doing. I was being shadowed by an eagle.
Then the eagle overtook me and took up position not far in front of me and just a little lower than I was. Once again, when I turned so did the eagle. It was a sunny day, and I had an uninterrupted view of the upper surface of this large bird with its wings fully spread and its tip feathers fanned out like finger tips as eagles do in light air. Anyone who thinks an eagle is simply brown is wrong. If there is a single key colour it is more of a golden brown. But there is so much more. The feathers right across the top of its wings shone with the most beautiful array of black markings, flashes of white and many shades of brown and gold as it banked gently left and right in sync with me. The wings were moving in so many different ways, some obvious and some very fine as feathers and wing size and shape were constantly changed to maintain the perfect aerofoil to achieve the perfect aerodynamic performance.
The eagle’s head would turn very slightly from side to side, which I took to be his way of keeping me clearly in sight. We flew in formation for a pass or two left and right then the eagle peeled off and I lost sight of him.
It was a privilege to have this bird choose to fly near me and, for a short time, with me – even if its motive was to educate me as to exactly who controlled the territory into which I had flown. I have never forgotten the dazzling display of the colour and structure and movement of its wings viewed from directly above in bright sunlight.
The eagles have landed
A pair of wedge-tailed eagles recently developed an interest in a paddock not far from Apollo Bay, or to be exact, in a couple of dead lamb carcases in the paddock. The pair did a lot of flying over the paddock and over adjacent paddocks, occasionally landing in trees lining one side of the paddock, and occasionally landing on the grass amongst the stock. I saw them feeding on the carcase, but I also saw them just standing by as crows and other birds did the same thing. At no time did I see them showing any interest in livestock.
As the Barham River and its swampy banks separated me from the eagles in the paddock, these shots were all taken with the telephoto lens working hard.