Citizen action and a sensitive developer saved a baby fish eagle’s nest in Kommetjie, until the fledgling was able to independently leave.
The situation, which played out on Imhoff farm, brought to light the complexities of balancing wildlife and City policies about removal of invasive alien species, and development.
It has even divided the bird specialists, whose single concern is for the welfare of the fish eagles.
Preparation for the Riverside Extension development on Imhoff farm was brought to a halt in November last year when ornithologist Adam Welz’s wife noticed that the trees the fish eagle pair nest in was about to be chopped down. A flurry of phone calls followed and raptor biologist Andrew Jenkins was called out.
Mr Jenkins rushed to the site and contacted Gerhard van der Horst, owner of the land and developer, to warn him of the danger to the birds and that it is illegal to chop down a tree in which fish eagles are nesting.
The result was that the tree was saved long enough to give the fledgling chick time to leave the nest. The fledgling took flight in December last year – and the tree was cut down this February.
Adam Welz was upset by the situation and what he called “a scorched earth approach” to house building, where the entire site is bulldozed to destroy the natural vegetation before being built on.
He said the “bulldoze and build” approach was reminiscent of the American-style suburban sprawl of the 1950s, and showed a lack of imagination and a backward planning mentality.
Any environmental professional who could not see a resident fish eagle’s nest would have to be very poor indeed, he added.
“Fish eagles are iconic birds; they are easy to see and their nests are quite easy to find. They like sturdy, tall trees that offer shelter from wind. They also leave great white splatters of poo around the tree. It’s not something you can easily miss,” he said.
The birds are monogamous and use the same nest for years.
“Fish eagles add value, and many people are happy to pay more to live in an area where one can hear fish eagle calls and see them. They also add emotional value – people care about them – not to mention that they are an important part of the ecosystem.”
While he understands that the trees that raptors nest in on the Cape Peninsula are often aliens, such as eucalyptus, he said that some of those trees could be maintained for the eagles without causing serious ecological damage.
“The eagles already live in a modified environment – many of the fish they eat are alien species like carp.”
Mr Jenkins, however, was pleased with the willingness of the developers to listen, and he said he would meet with Mr Van der Horst to look at ideas for future plans, to ensure that the eagles were not chased away for good by encroaching development.
“We got to the tree with the nest in it just in time, and the simple fact is that with all the surrounding trees having been cut down, the eagles would not have stayed in that single tree to nest again,” he said.
“They want the copse of trees for shelter.”
The impending development on its own would have moved them off eventually, he said.
Mr Jenkins said the eagles bred towards the second part of the year and when he and Mr Van der Horst met they would look at retaining the other trees in the area, which would make good options for nests and how to optimise conditions for the eagles.
Their preferred trees are gums, milkwoods and stone pines, and they need space, and safety from baboons.
Mr Jenkins said to his knowledge it was the eagles’ first chick hatched in that nest and possibly the first chick in 14 years to be hatched in the area.
This pair of fish eagles have been in the area for two years. He said other raptors in the area included black sparrow hawks, which also opted for the same trees.
“While I understand that there is policy on removing the alien species, we must also give a little, to maintain the environment of our most prized apex predators, which are a great privilege to have so close to us,” he said.
“We are very grateful to Gerhard for being so open to talking more about the way forward once he realised the raptors were there,” Mr Jenkins said.
Mr Van der Horst and his family have been on the land for over a century, and he describes his development business as sensitive and environmentally aware.
“People think there has been a lot of development, but of the two and a half thousand hectares my family own, only 25% of it is marked for development. Some of the land was expropriated – that became Ocean View – but the majority of our land is, and will remain, undeveloped,” he said.
He said of the remaining 75%, some land was earmarked to be added to the national park, and the portion being developed would be done so in an environmentally sensitive way.
He said the trees being cut down were all invasive aliens and they had five years to remove them in accordance with the City by-laws. “We will, however, keep the ridge of stone pine trees because Andrew explained to me that this is a good second choice for the fish eagles, which we obviously want to keep in our area and on our land.”