One of the best parts of being a geoscientist is travelling to various parts of the country, often far from cities and towns and walking up mountains (such as they are in Australia) and along gullies looking for interesting rock outcrops and trying to make sense of them and interpreting what they mean with regard to the history of this continent and the planet. On one of these numerous trips, I was with others looking at rocks on Mount Unbunmaroo. This mountain is a fairly long NNE-SSW-oriented ridge with an elevation above sealevel of only 387 metres, and is only about 120 metres above the surrounding plains. It lies about 57 km NE or the town of Boulia in western Queensland.
On this day, we had parked the vehicles near one of the few trees on the eastern side of the mountain. The tree was quite small at only about 12 metres tall, and in it, at a height of about 6 metres was a huge bird’s nest, well over a metre across, which given its size, was presumably that of a wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax). It appeared to be unoccupied. After alighting and getting our gear organised, we left the vehicles and hiked up the face of the ridge, over the top and for about a kilometre or so down to the plains to the west sampling as we went. On the way back to the vehicles, I was dragging the chain a bit (I have a dodgy knee; an old soccer injury), and all the others had passed by the trig station at the top of the ridge just as I was approaching it. There was a soft easterly breeze blowing and I had about 5 metres to go to the trig station when I saw a most stunning, beautiful sight. A wedge-tailed eagle was gliding along, riding the updraft from the breeze, parallel with and only a metre or so above the top of the ridge. Just as he passed in front of me and before he disappeared behind the trig station, he gave a most imperious glance over his left shoulder, as if to say ‘What the hell are you doing here? This is my country.’ It was something I will never forget.
In 2018, a Murray James Silvester, from east Gippsland, Victoria, was gaoled after it was discovered that he had killed over 400 wedge-tailed eagles between October 2016 and February, 2018. He killed them with baits laced with poison and when tried, he pleaded guilty and was gaoled for 14 days and fined $2500. It is believed to be the first custodial sentence for the destruction of protected wildlife; the eagles have been a protected species since the 1970s1.
Wedge-tailed eagles have been wrongly assumed to be responsible for killing much livestock, especially young lambs. However, up to 90% of their diet comprises ground-dwelling animals such as rabbits, wallabies and young kangaroos, and occasionally snakes, lizards, large birds, possums, foxes and feral cats. Research by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has shown that wedge-tailed eagles will occasionally eat sheep and lambs, but that they usually only attack the weak or dying, or will scavenge dead animals2. So, for Silvester to poison over 400 of them in the belief that they kill livestock is simply stupid, as it is not based on reality. Silvester’s sentence of 14 days and his fine of $2500 for his crime is clearly inadequate.