You may be wondering why I would title my most recent blog entry in such manner. The answer is simple. It is about Hope, a young (male) White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) who hatched sometime in the second week of August 2013. Interestingly, only one eaglet was in the nest when I first visited and photographed from our hide that we built purposely for photographing the progress of my local pair of sea eagles. Finding the nest was difficult enough in the first place, getting to an eye-level – elevated – shooting position was also a challenge. Luckily, the terrain where the nest tree is located is a combination of escarpments, gullies and rock outcrops and fortunately, about 20 meters back from the sea eagles’ nest is a rock ledge about a meter and a half above eye-level with the nest. All we had to do was build a photography hide.
My first session was on September 1, Sunday. It was a glorious morning indeed with a six am sunrise, light spring chill and the spectacular bird song of dawn greeting me as the light became more prominent. At this stage the little eaglet was not christened at all, since the “hope” part was yet to occur.
Mum flew off the nest at sunrise and sat nearby. Dad arrived about three hours later sans food.
I managed to shoot a fair bit of HD video using a Canon EOS 5D MarkII, which is an awesome tool for the job. Trouble began some 10 days later when about three kilometres away, a Rural Bushfire Brigade preventative back burn apparently got out of control and started to make its way to the general area of the nest gully. We all had an incredibly stressful few days as I watched the fires creep closer and closer along the leaf litter covered forest floor. On September 13 or sometime around then the fire stopped burning a mere 200 meters north of the nest gully. My initial devastation turned to hope. Hence the name Hope was given to the sea eagle offspring. Hope was now doing well, he grew fast and at nine weeks of age (about three weeks from being able to fly and leave the nest) he was doing really, really well. I was able to stand 15 meters from him in plain view at eye level on my way out one afternoon and he was just standing there watching, unafraid. I was quite amazed, as I was expecting him to move around or look somewhat agitated and try to hide low down in the nest or behind one of the upright branches supporting the nest structure. He was not at all worried or stressed.
Then sadly, another fire started around October 15th around three kilometres away near the town of Springwood and it worked its way along the mountains, out towards the Nepean River near Yellow Rock / Mt Riverview and before I knew it, on October 17th, Hope’s nest gully was alight and smoke billowing across the entire face of the escarpment. The event was – or appeared to be – catastrophic! I was literally crying as I watched from near the town of Castlereagh as the flames engulfed the leaf litter on the ground, lit up the trees and just burned everything in their path. I was certain that Hope had no chance and he was about 10 days out from being able to actually fly away.
Once the fires were over and the smokey haze cleared, I could see the nest gully still green, untouched, and Hope’s nest tree intact with the surrounding 30-40 meters of trees also in good condition. On November 11, my friend Peter finally made his way into the area. He found the nest empty and the floor below within about a 30 meter radius also empty. At this point, we still have minor hope that Hope, somehow, somehow, just managed to escape. However, two experts in the field of raptors (Dr. Steve Debus and wildlife artist/photographer Steve Tredinnick) both agree that it is most likely that Hope had perished.
I can tell you nothing is more painful than not knowing the outcome. There’s no closure, no result, no certainty, just a big empty hole the departure of this little white fluff ball turned big boy of an eaglet has left in my heart. I am utterly crushed and the hope to see Hope will keep me going strong, however, not knowing his fate is the hardest thing of all. I attach a few photos of our hide building adventure, of Hope’s parents Elvis and Deanna.