Black Eagle: First breeding record in Malaysia

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On 21 March 2003, Chiu Sein Chiong, Ooi Beng Yean & Cheang Kum Seng successfully located a Black Eagle (Ictinaetus malayensis) nest containing a well-developed young (left). The nest was found in lower montane forest at about 1360 m asl at Pos Slim, Perak. As far as we are aware, this discovery constitutes the first nesting and breeding record for this species in Malaysia. The following is an account of the chain of events that led to this exciting discovery.

The sighting of a pair of Black Eagles in courting/pair-bonding flight above a ridge in Pos Slim, Perak on 26 January 2003 kindled a flicker of hope that the pair was either selecting a nest site or was already nesting. During a second visit to the same location on 12 February, a Black Eagle was observed carrying a forest rat which it dropped off behind some trees on the ridge. It re-emerged very quickly and glided away. Subsequently, a second Black Eagle emerged from the same ridge to confront a different pair of Black Eagles that were approaching. Later, on the same day, a Black Eagle was again observed dropping off a lizard at the ridge.

On the morning of 16 February, a Black Eagle was again seen carrying a lizard to the same line of trees on the ridge, dropping out of sight and reappearing soon after. By now we were quite positive that the Black Eagles were nesting on the ridge but the prospect of a tiring climb up the hill-cutting and then into the montane forest to look for a needle in the haystack was enough excuse to put off the search to another time. However, at the enthusiastic urging of the others, a party set out that same afternoon to find a way up to the ridge. The climbers successfully worked their way up the hill-cutting to the forest edge but decided against venturing further due to fading light. Now that the type of conditions and terrain were known, it set the stage for the planning of more climbs in search of the nest.

Our intended nest search plans were in disarray when suddenly access to Pos Selim for the general public was cut but thanks to the co-operation of the authorities we were given special permission to enter. On 9 March, one Black Eagle was again seen carrying a rodent back to the nest site. A second eagle appeared and glided into the nest location. From this we deduced that the Black Eagles had young in the nest. On 16 March a second nest search was organized. While a small group climbed up to the montane forest, the ground crew monitored the movements of the Black Eagles and provided feedback using walkie-talkies. Although the searchers occasionally caught glimpses of the eagles flying over, the thick canopy prevented them from seeing the flight direction of the eagles. The closed canopy and steep terrain did not help and we had problems with getting our orientation right. The search was called off as it was getting late and rain clouds gathered. However, the day’s efforts had not been a waste. The ground crew had observed a Black Eagle bringing food descend and ascend vertically within 2-3 seconds. This pinpointed the likely location of the nest and immediately motivated us to decide that another search be carried out within the next few days.

On 21 March, Ooi and Cheang started their climb at 10.30am while Chiu again provided ground support. Up to 11.50a.m. there was no sign of any Black Eagle but finally at 11.55am, one was seen heading towards the nest site. At 12.20pm, Ooi managed to “point” out his position in the forest to Chiu using a palm tree as a landmark. This indicated that Ooi was about 50 feet from the nest site. At 12.35pm, one of the Black Eagles flew out of the nest and joined the other Black Eagle that was performing flight displays. The first eagle turned back, perched and started calling. The second eagle then flew in to perch close to where Ooi was and then started to weave in and out of the forest. The behaviour of the Black Eagles was probably due to Ooi getting close to their nest. At 1.15pm, the walkie-talkie cackled again and the first words from Ooi were “EUREKA! Found the nest, one chick
inside!”

The nest was on a medium-sized tree, about 60 ft tall, growing on a very steep slope with its crown clear of smaller trees around it. The nest itself was lodged amongst the main branches, below the crown and near the center of the tree and was partly concealed by foliage and epiphytes. The nest was a compact mass of small twigs and branches, measuring about 2.5 ft wide and 2 ft deep.

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The juvenile, seen with one of the adults, appeared to be about two-thirds as large but with a short tail (right). Overall, it was dark brown, with back and wing feathers quite developed but with some remnant down still attached to the feather tips, giving the back a speckled appearance. The head and neck area was almost bare of feathers, with the large ear opening clearly visible. The dark eye, with a whitish orbital ridge above, had a greyish-black orbital area around it, giving the face a sunken look, not unlike that of the head of a vulture. The bill was black with a light yellow cere and gape. The underside, including the breast and thighs, was still covered with downy feathers. These descriptions of the juvenile were based on digital images taken on the day the nest was located and also during two subsequent visits on 22 March and 23 March.

On a visit on 31 March, the nest was found empty. No Black Eagle adult or juvenile was seen in the vicinity during a two-hour vigil. Another visit on 8 April confirmed that the nest was empty. Again no Black Eagle or young was seen in the immediate area of the nest and nearby forest. At the time of writing, it is not known whether the young had fledged successfully as no flying juvenile has yet been sighted.

Note: Laurence Poh Soon Ping, Lim Kim Chye, Lim Swee Yian, Dr.Chan Kai Soon, Dr.Chan Ah Lak and Pamela Phang participated in the nest search leading to its discovery. Other contributors were Sharon Chan, Leow Kon Fah and Phang Chee Mun.

21 April 2003: 2nd Nest

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In 26 October 2003, Chiu Sein Chiong and the late Laurence Poh Soon Ping observed a pair of Black Eagles breaking off branches to build a nest around 2km from the 1st nest site which had been cleared for hill slope stabilization work (left). The pair also exhibited courtship displays in flight. On 20 November, Chiu and Dr. Robert DeCandido saw one Black Eagle rearranging sticks in the large completed nest, no new branches were brought back.

On 21 December 2003, Chiu & Ooi Beng Yean observed the pair circling before perching and calling out. The pair then copulated. On 4 January 2004, Lim Kim Chye and Lim Swee Yian saw one Black Eagle gliding around the nest tree and incubation had not yet commenced.

On a visit on 8 February 2004, Chiu, Laurence Poh and Cheang Kum Seng confirmed that incubation was in progress and we also witnessed change of incubation duties. On 7 March one of the adults was seen frantically dive-bombing a Siamang which was trying to approach the nest. Incubation was still in progress on 16 March and by 28 March it was suspected that there was a small chick in the nest.

On 1 April 2004 Kim Chye saw one chick in white down and still wobbly. By 6 April the chick was left unattended for long periods, white down still extensive all over head and body but black/dark brown pin feathers visible on wings and tail, bill black with yellow cere.

The chick was last seen alive on 8 April (Kim Chye) and 11 April (Chiu) but on the next visit on 22 April, Kim Chye reported that the nest was empty and no adults or juvenile was seen in the vicinity. Another observation on 26 April (Chiu) confirmed no Black Eagles around the nest tree.

We were unable to confirm if the Juvenile had fledged but based on plumage of chick we think that it was too young to fledge and probably was predated.

Images by Ooi Beng Yean (eagle by nest) and Laurence Poh (eagle in flight, permission courtesy of Mrs Poh).

This posting is made in memory of Laurence Poh who passed away three years ago. Laurence was one of the active participants of the above Black Eagle study.

From the article:
Chiu, S.C. and Lim, K.C. 2003. The First Breeding Record of the Black Eagle Ictinaetus malayensis in Malaysia. Suara Enggang 11 (2):14-16.

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