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You might have spotted a martial eagle before, but have you ever witnessed how these raptors mate? One wildlife photographer was lucky enough to observe the intimate moment and document the event with astounding pictures.

Professional wildlife photographer John Bryant was traversing the Kruger National Park’s Timbavati River near Leeubron Waterhole when his wife spotted a martial eagle. The dense vegetation meant that photography was tricky at first, but John kept his camera trained on the raptor. Just as well, because a remarkable scene was about to unfold in front of his lens.

“Although it was quite difficult to manoeuvre into a position that presented a clear view, I managed to capture a number of pictures. I initially used a 1DX Mark II with a 600mm lens, but soon added a 2x converter to get more frame-filling snaps. It was a large specimen of the species,” says John.

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The martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) was constantly calling – the first time John had ever heard this sound as these birds are usually silent.

Anticipating that the bird would take off sooner rather than later, John got rid of the converter. As expected, the eagle flew to the other side of the road and perched on another tree – fortunately, an unobstructed branch. Overcast weather was on John’s side with minimal interference from the sun.

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John soon swopped for another one of his 1Dxs, this one with a 200-400mm f/4L IS lens and 1.4x converter. “I had just started to take pictures – slightly adjusting the exposure because of the strong back-lighting – when my wife shouted: ‘Here comes another one!’”

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Get that shot!

“Another martial eagle appeared and all I could think of was hitting the shutter button. I then realised that the duo was most likely a breeding pair – the female was visibly larger. In total, I took 88 pictures from the moment the male bird swept in until the remarkable display sadly ended after some 19 seconds.

“The male hovered over her and positioned himself on her back without digging in his talons. Once the male was reasonably well settled, she lifted her tail to allow penetration,” John explains. As the female was rather precariously perched with one leg a lot lower than the other, her immense strength was evident.

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Too soon, it was all over. “The male quickly took flight and all that was left of an exciting and unique experience, was a rather bedraggled looking female raptor.”

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“A huge thank you to my wife, Lesley, who was driving. She managed to get the vehicle in a very good position. Not forgetting that she spotted the female first and alerted me to fact that the male was entering the scene!”

New hope for martial eagles?

John was especially privileged to witness the interaction as martial eagle numbers are in decline. The summer 2014/2015 issue of Wild reported that the numbers of martial eagles nesting along Kruger’s rivers had fallen from 16 pairs in the early 1990s to only nine pairs. John has shared his sighting with the researchers and it is hoped it will help them monitor this pair’s breeding success.

You too can contribute! Report sightings to [email protected]. In Kruger, keep a lookout for colour rings on martial eagles and, ideally, take a photo. Include the date and location of the sighting in your email.

For John’s complete picture sequence, visit his Flickr or SmugMug pages.