Most who visit the lowland tropical forest for the first time will be surprised to find that, despite popular documentaries, it appears rather empty. You can walk for hours in the green gloom and not find a single big animal. It makes it all the more rewarding when an encounter finally occurs.
Although you might think that humanity and our relentless expansion is to blame, this is not the case. Early explorers and biologists such as Alexander von Humboldt reported similar stories of waiting and searching long hours for their subjects.
The causes of this phenomenon are many. For example, a large proportion of the animals in the tropical rainforest live their lives in the higher levels of the treetops, where they easily escape our attention. It’s also the case that some species specialize so strongly for a particular type of food that they spread out over vast areas rather than congregating together in well-known spots.
The jungle thus resembles an expensive box of chocolate full of candies, each of which is represented by only one or two pieces. You might enjoy a piece or two each day, but it will be a while before you can indulge again.
If, like Forrest Gump, I were to stick with the box of chocolate metaphor, the rarest chocolates you can come across are apex predators. They have to be very scarce if the forest is to sustain them. In South America, the trio that rules the water, land, and air are the Anaconda, Jaguar, and Harpy Eagle.
Let me take you back to a time 13 years ago when I walked one of the rainforest paths in northeastern Ecuador. A borrowed Nikon D300 camera with a Nikon 105mm f/2.8 macro lens was hanging around my neck at the time. In fact, my own D300 had already involuntarily passed into someone else’s possession.
Mostly, I photographed the small animals of the forest floor or simply contented myself to observe the forest around me. Sometimes that, too, is a welcome change. In the forest understory, I was looking for army ants, but that day, I had no luck.
As I slowly made my way back to camp, suddenly there was the sound of massive wings. You don’t hear that sound very often in the rainforest. I turned to follow the sound, and what I saw nearly took my breath away. Not far from me, some fifteen, maybe twenty meters away, a huge raptor perched on a branch. A Crested Eagle!
It was sitting on a branch, looking at me with its piercing gaze and its prey, the Tiger Rat Snake, was hanging from its jaws. Adults of this snake can reach nearly three meters in length. The photo above shows that the eagle decapitated the snake, which is hanging from the branch.
Decapitating a snake sounds brutal, but it’s a fairly common behavior in raptors. One reason may be that decapitation guarantees that the prey is safely dead. Other studies claim that it makes it easier for the young to devour larger prey. So, it’s quite possible that the eagle in the photo is a male on his way to the nest with a snack for his chick.
More than that, I’ll never know, because after a few moments, the eagle took off again with its precious cargo. I was left in the forest, stunned by its majesty. Even after thirteen years since that encounter, the memory of that moment hasn’t faded, and I am still amazed I had time to capture the photograph I share with you above.
Back then, I regretted not having a longer lens on my camera, but today I am glad that I got the snake in the photo, too. In any case, just getting a photo of this bird is one of my highlights as a photographer. The bird identification guide that I use in the field says: “Any day with a Crested Eagle deserves a gold star.” I have nothing to add to that!