Well-concealed in his camouflaged tent, Daryl Fleay has a bird’s-eye view of the feathered family antics occurring some 50m downhill from his carefully chosen hiding spot. It’s feeding time in the eagle’s nest, and mum and dad wedge-tail are ready to dish up freshly caught rabbits to their two fluffy offspring in a moment now frozen in time through Daryl’s telephoto lens.
He’s been birdwatching around Central Victoria for almost 70 years, inspired by his famous naturalist uncle David Fleay and encouraged by his grandfather, who would point out avian species and nests during their bushwalks when he was a child.
“Wedge-tailed Eagles are my favourite creatures, other than my wife Raye,” laughs Daryl, as he describes the apex predators that have survived for generations in at least 20 separate territories within 20km of Bendigo, especially south through the granite belt where the rabbits are plentiful. Where there’s rabbits, there’s eagles.
“Nesting is most fascinating as it’s the core of their lives and they spend half the year on it,” he says.
“They do display flights around April/May, flying together, turning upside down and touching talons in a pre-mating ritual. They build a new nest or refurbish an old one in June, or early July, then lay their eggs like clockwork, almost on the same day every year. One pair I watched laid their first egg around July 7 every year for the six years I followed them. Eggs take six weeks to hatch so the chicks appear in September, then it’s another 10 weeks before they fledge and leave the nest.”
Daryl goes to great lengths to ensure his activities do not disturb the birds.
“I put up my hide three weeks after the chicks have hatched and on subsequent visits for photography. I enter and leave the hide when the adults are away from the nest hunting. This means I may be in there for several hours, during which time it’s essential to remain perfectly still and silent.”
The wait is well worthwhile. “To watch an eagle feed its young is so special. They feed one at a time, making sure they each get the same amount. Usually there’s two chicks but they’re so highly intelligent that if it’s dry and there’s not a lot of food around, they’ll only lay one egg. Very rarely they’ll lay three, but it takes a lot of confidence in the season for them to do that.”
While Daryl photographs many species of bird and has a special interest in other raptors like hawks, falcons and owls, there’s a personal explanation why Wedge-tailed Eagles are at the top of his tree.
“The Tasmanian Wedge-tailed Eagle is a sub-species of the mainland eagle, darker and bigger, and it’s named after our family because my uncle was the first person to identify it as a separate sub-species. It’s called Aquila audax fleayi. That’s why I like wedgies – they’re like my brothers!!”
Sadly, not everyone shares his passion. Shooting or poisoning the birds occurs worryingly often, according to Daryl and local wildlife rescuer and resident wedgie expert Neil Morgan. Hence they keep the exact location of known nests out of the public domain.
“A lot of people hate wedge-tails and consider them sheep killers,” says Daryl. “But my uncle researched their feeding patterns and found only about 1% of their diet is sheep, and then mainly non-viable lambs. The fact people poison them deliberately is just dreadful.”
Neil, from the Wildlife Rescue Emergency Service (WRES), retrieves birds that have ingested bait and tries to nurse them back to health, readying them for release. He also tends birds of prey that have fallen from their nest, been shot, hit by cars or are otherwise unwell, while partner Jo takes care of a raft of other sick and injured native animals from the ground floor of their Spring Gully home.
Neil invited Bendigo Magazine to visit WRES’s two rehabilitation aviaries on private land in Mandurang, where five majestic Wedge-tailed Eagles – including one riddled with shotgun pellets – and one grand-looking Little Eagle were being housed. A sixth wedgie was recovering at Neil’s house.
The large enclosures have CCTV surveillance linked to Neil’s phone, so he can monitor their progress remotely. “There are skills they need to be able to perform before they can be released back into the wild, including being able to fly directly from the ground to the top perch,” he says. “And they tend to be more active when there are no humans around, so it helps to be able to check in on them.”
Neil has about five wedge-tails under his care at any one time, keeping them for several months, depending on their injuries, until he is confident they can survive in the wild. He is preparing to launch a collaborative satellite tracking project he hopes will better inform raptor rescue services.
“This is going to be very important for the future,” he says of plans to fit rehabilitated eagles with small solar-powered GPS tracking devices via a harness and follow their movements. “This has never been done in Victoria before, but it will provide us with regular location updates throughout the day showing us where the birds have been and what they’ve been doing.
“I plan to tag birds that have been compromised, for example fallen out of the nest during windy conditions, and may have gained no hunting or foraging experience from their parents. I try to teach them those skills but we have no idea what really happens after they are released. This tracking data should be massive in helping us find out the survival and mortality rates of the birds we care for and whether what we are doing is effective and worthwhile.”
Neil has been nurturing wildlife since childhood. “I lived in Flora Hill and there were often young, injured magpies to pick up on the way to and from school and take home to feed and care for,” he recalls. “Eventually, everything I could pick up and help, I would.”
Through WRES, which was founded in 2005 and is based in Bendigo, he works closely with local councils, police and community members who come across orphaned or injured native animals, responding at any hour of day or night. With over 30 years’ personal experience, he is regarded as an expert in his field and enjoys strong support from local vets.
His tales don’t always have a happy ending – he says he’s had to euthanise five Wedge-tailed Eagles already this year. But that is countered by the joy he achieves from a successful release. “They’re all incredible, majestic creatures but every now and then you get one that’s just a little bit different, so I have my favourites. I once had a huge female wedgie that had suffered soft tissue damage, probably having been hit by a car, and it was so big we called it The Whale! It’s been released now.”
WRES relies on community donations, grants and sponsorships, but Neil often dips into his own pocket to help with the cost of food and treatment. He is currently spending several hundred dollars a month on rabbits for his raptors, while the trackers for his project cost around $4000 each. He welcomes any contributions and is always happy to speak to potential donors/sponsors.
For both men, the love of nature and eagles in particular is more innate than learned. “I think it’s in your blood,” says Daryl. “You don’t just become interested – it’s in your DNA.”
To support injured wedge-tails and other native wildlife, visit WRES.org.au