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Harpy Eagle sighted at Cornell Lab!

Text and images by Kevin McGowan
Harpy Eagle
Neil Rettig with a captive Harpy Eagle.

Okay, it was a captive Harpy Eagle, but nevertheless, when the world’s largest raptor pays a visit to your workplace it tends to grab your attention, even if you can’t count it on your ABA list. On Monday and Tuesday we were lucky to have a visit from videographer Neil Rettig, who helped film our Mississippi River Delta videos. He was here to talk about his exploits filming some of the world’s most magnificent raptors. He happens to live with a trained Harpy Eagle himself, so he brought him along. Kevin McGowan was there to take photos, and he has this short account. –Hugh Powell

The Harpy Eagle of the American tropics is the largest of the eagles in the world (by weight, strength, and claw size), which means it is the biggest predatory bird living today. It is one impressive animal. On top of having talons larger than the claws of a grizzly bear, it also has this cool tufty hairdo of a crest and wings that are almost as wide as they are long.

Harpy Eagle
Cal casts a predatory eye on Neil's wife as she crosses the room.

The last Monday Night Seminar of spring was given by Neil Rettig, an award-winning nature photographer. Neil got his start climbing giant trees in South America and taking the first films of Harpy Eagle nests. Hazards included falling from 150 foot trees, tropical diseases, and having your head ripped off by parental harpies! Which is why all the climbers wore motorcycle helmets and went in and out of their high altitude tree blinds at night.

On top of talking about his experiences and showing films of eagle nests (Philippine Monkey-eating Eagles are spectacular!!!), Neil brought along Cal, his male Harpy Eagle. These guys eat large monkeys and sloths, and Cal was definitely interested in the small children in the audience. [Editor’s note: We took this possibility very seriously. Children were kept away from Cal. Neil kept a firm grip on the jesses that held Cal to his falconer’s glove, and as an extra safety measure, had an extra rope tying Cal to his waist.]

Captive birds often form strong attachments to their owners, and Neil said that Cal did not like his wife, Laura Johnson. When he flies the eagle loose on their farm in Wisconsin, Laura stays inside the house. That reminded me of the 1971 made-for-TV movie with Hugh O’Brian and Elizabeth Ashley called Harpy. Its seemingly far-fetched plot involves using a Harpy Eagle as a murder weapon on an ex-wife.

I have to say, based on Cal’s expression when Laura moved across the room, that B-movie didn’t seem so ridiculous to me.

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