Birds of a feather might flock together, but they’re definitely not in favour of sharing. This tawny eagle should have devoured its breakfast when it had the chance. Competition for food in the Kgalagadi can be rife…

The Kij Kij waterhole on Nossob Road in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park became the scene of an aerial battle soon after a tawny eagle secured a kill. The epic contest between some of the Kgalagadi’s stealthiest killers was captured by Wild Card members and lifelong lovers of wildlife and photography, Ernest Porter and Karen Blackwood. For these first-time visitors to the arid park, their expectations were “greatly exceeded”.

A Lanner Falcon hit a Cape Turtle dove but did not manage to grab the dove out of the air. The dove fell to the ground and the dark Tawny Eagle collected it and then two other Tawny Eagles also got involved trying to steal the prey.

Pictures by Ernest Porter and Karen Blackwood

“We were photographing lanner falcons after watching two young lions playing in the water. Once the lions left, dozens of doves came to the waterhole to drink and bathe – of course, the predatory birds were quick on their heels.”

After the recent Kgalagadi rains, the scent of flowers hung in the air before the heat of the day burned it away, says Karen. “The air was still cool, but warming up quickly. Insects buzzed nearby. The cooing and calling of the doves cascaded and crescendoed as they arrived in huge flocks to drink. The whirr of their wings shook the air every time they rose as one in fright. The wind whistling through the lanner’s wings as they attacked at high speed added drama to the symphony.”

Ernest and Karen watched as a lanner falcon hit a Cape turtle dove at high speed, knocking it to the ground and killing it. Almost immediately a tawny eagle swooped down onto the dove before the lanner could return to retrieve it.

Tawny eagle battle-Kgagalagi-Karen Blackwood-2
The idyllic spot soon turned into a warzone as other birds of prey wanted in on the action. “Since we both monitor breeding eagles, seeing conflict is common. This conflict, though, was unusual because it involved three same-species raptors in an extraordinary three-way duel for a little prize.” [Tawny eagles have a wingspan of 1,7-2m and can weigh up to 2,5kg. – Ed.]

The fight begins

A Lanner Falcon hit a Cape Turtle dove but did not manage to grab the dove out of the air. The dove fell to the ground and the dark Tawny Eagle collected it and then two other Tawny Eagles also got involved trying to steal the prey.

The skirmish began between two tawny eagles, each wanted to claim the dove for itself. The airborne fight was dramatic as they launched at each other with talons extended.

A Lanner Falcon hit a Cape Turtle dove but did not manage to grab the dove out of the air. The dove fell to the ground and the dark Tawny Eagle collected it and then two other Tawny Eagles also got involved trying to steal the prey.

A Lanner Falcon hit a Cape Turtle dove but did not manage to grab the dove out of the air. The dove fell to the ground and the dark Tawny Eagle collected it and then two other Tawny Eagles also got involved trying to steal the prey.

A Lanner Falcon hit a Cape Turtle dove but did not manage to grab the dove out of the air. The dove fell to the ground and the dark Tawny Eagle collected it and then two other Tawny Eagles also got involved trying to steal the prey.

But as with most wildlife sightings in the Kgalagadi, there is always an element of surprise. Tawny eagles are known for pirating food from other raptors, and soon a third tawny joined the clash.

Tawny eagle battle-Kgagalagi-Karen Blackwood-13

Tawny eagle battle-Kgagalagi-Karen Blackwood-14

The younger, tan-coloured tawny had the recklessness of youth – it was fearless, desperate and attacked with vigour.

Tawny eagle battle-Kgagalagi-Karen Blackwood-16

The juvenile bird risked everything to win the morsel from the two older and more experienced birds.

A Lanner Falcon hit a Cape Turtle dove but did not manage to grab the dove out of the air. The dove fell to the ground and the dark Tawny Eagle collected it and then two other Tawny Eagles also got involved trying to steal the prey.

Tawny eagle battle-Kgagalagi-Karen Blackwood-18

A Lanner Falcon hit a Cape Turtle dove but did not manage to grab the dove out of the air. The dove fell to the ground and the dark Tawny Eagle collected it and then two other Tawny Eagles also got involved trying to steal the prey.

The two adults finally flew away after being slashed at and beaten with wings, leaving the youngster with the dead dove.

Although the battle lasted a mere minute, the dove was now in pieces after being pierced, dropped during flight, and pulled at with talons and beaks.

“We came home with over 10,000 pictures! We feel that everyone should have the opportunity to take a trophy animal home on archival paper. By photographing it and leaving it for the next [visitors to witness], everyone wins, especially the animals, which are Africa’s and the world’s true treasures.”

About the photographers

Ernest is one of the staff photographers for the Black Eagles Project Roodekrans at Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden in Johannesburg. Karen volunteers as a bald eagle monitor for Raptor Education Foundation in the USA.

In 2016 Karen and Ernest started the photo safari company Eagle Eye Safaris, which takes small groups on safari to photograph the world’s most amazing animals. Follow them on Facebook for more information.