Thursday, 14 May 2015

How Great Was the Greatest

How Great is the Greatest?

You sit atop your mountain peak, the sun streaming down, warming your body. The sudden warmth temporarily dissipates the cool snow-capped mountain air, and you stand and stretch your body and limbs to take in all the sun has to offer. Your aged bones soak in the pleasure of it all, and you feel young once again.

But it doesn't wash away your hunger! You settle down, suddenly depressed at the hopelessness of it all. You have spent weeks searching for that which is your staple diet, the large Moa, Dinornis Robustus, as the Europeans will call it when they arrive. But it has seemingly disappeared. Your scrounge for small birds and fish has yielded paltry fare, and has not sated your appetite. You are the greatest living bird of modern times, and you have to resort to small wildlife to satisfy your great hunger. The injustice is frightening. You think to yourself why? Why did they disappear. For thousands of years, your coexistence with the great ratites of Ao te a roa has been supreme, they in plentiful free roaming abundance, and you, because of your great size, carefully bred to maintain a selective number so as not to tip the scales of nature. Too many of you, and not enough prey to sustain your survival.

But why has the balance shifted? Why are you fighting for your survival after all this time. You remember the day's activities from the day before, your search up and down the breadth of the Great Divide, searching the high foothills and the lowland plains. You can't escape the reality. The smoke roiling up from where the large stand of trees once stood, for miles, upon green mile, for as far as the eye could see. But now, only black charred earth, and burnt stumps. You remember the scene, from somewhere within your past, the vista embedded in your gene pool, the time the great volcano in the other Island to the north blotted out the sun, and the force of the eruption wiping out all the trees, and nearly all life in the rarest of lands. The scene yesterday was a deep memory revisited, though this time the wind never came, or if it did, it was of a different sort.

Then you recall. You departed from the large nest of your perch before sunrise, as the pink glow settled on the clouds above. Your hunger was extreme, and the trip this day would take you further out of your territory than you have ever been before. The updraft thermals from the ranges had not taken full effect, so you were reliant on drift-winds through the passes, and occasional heavy beats of your enormous twelve-foot wingspan. You remembered the struggle to maintain flight for long periods without thermal compensation, and stopped in the lower foothills, scavenging for small birds and insects to maintain your exorbitant energy requirements. You clearly remember resting in one of the few remaining Totara trees on a rocky knoll, overlooking the devastation below. Your search with your extremely good eyesight failed to pick out that which you sort, so you waited to restore your sagging energy, and to await the warming of the land and the onset of the gliding updrafts.

Then you saw them, the two-legged prey you sought. But wait, they had changed! They no longer walked with careless grace, no longer bent down to pull fresh shoots and grasses from the low shrubs and the forest floor. They made noises, too, that were totally alien to you. But your hunger was overbearing, and the strange Moa before you were nonetheless smaller than you, and bigger than the wee titbits you'd been forced to consume of late.

You lifted your powerful wings, swooped back down the valley behind you, gliding endlessly above the ground until you spied the rocky scarp before you, and as you passed over it, to your relief, the thermal caught your wings and body and threw you up, up, ever upwards, soaring into your domain, the sky above all beings. You soared as was your right, the largest eagle to fly the world, heading upwards and over the ridge, too high to be seen by the figures on the ground, but not too high for your superb vision. You counted out the specks, six wandering in a line, stooping every now and then to look at something on the ground, and then onwards towards the knoll you had recently vacated. You see that one is straggling behind the others, bending more often, perhaps a little slower than the others. You rejoice at your good fortune. The last one is to be your target, your first substantial meal for a long time. Why take it now? Soar in the warm thermal for a while longer, soak the warmth, and conserve your energy for the dive, and the ultimate strike.

Then it happens! The group below start yelling in their strange way, a way you have never heard before, and the newness sends a trickle of uncertainty along your wings, down your body, and out through your massive talons! You switch your powerful gaze back to the group and then hear the sound of familiarity, the source of your existence, and as you swing your gaze towards that key to your survival, you see it, breaking cover from the trees you have just left. A thing of beauty. Neck long from centuries of adaptation and body packed with large greyish brown feathers, covering that meat packed torso. The herbivorous ratite was suddenly the only desire of your attention. It moved gracefully in full flight away from the pack of smaller objects, the noise obviously startling it, which made you suddenly joyous. You remember the thrill that spread through you as you settled into hunting mode again, your wings and body tensing for the dive about to be undertaken. The membrane slipped easily across your eyes to protect them from the extreme wind pressure that would make them weep if you didn't have them. The quarry was settled into an easy lope on a straight course away from the strange creatures, and you judged your moment, calculating the right moment to hit the strike zone, when the Moa was starting to slow.

Then it happened. Your dive was exhilarating, the pressure extreme but thrilling, the speed increasing as you got closer and closer, and just as you reached almost ground level, you pulled out from the dive and catapulted across the great birds back, pulled up your wings in sudden air braking, spreading them as wide as you could get them, extended your great talons, let rip your mighty shriek and watched as the Moa's head turned at the noise, only to see your talons rip into his neck under his head. The impact threw you off to one side but a hurried flapping of your wings produced a sudden lift and a quick flip to the right and you were back at your prey. By this stage, it had dropped to the ground, flopping around trying to stop the pain that coursed through it's great body. It's huge three toed claws scratched out the ground, and in an attempt to protect itself from your second strike, lifted them towards you to deflect your intent. In that it partly succeeded, amazed you, your first strike normally enough to lay these birds to rest immediately. But his one seemed to be fighting for it's survival, albeit from a very wounded and defensive position. You settled on the ground adjacent it's head well away from the claws, and folded your great wings under themselves, picking at the ruffled feathers where your prey had managed to graze you. It swivelled it's head in your direction, dark blood oozing from the gash in it's neck. The dark brown and black orbs of it's eyes then caught yours, pleading it's mercy, it's right to survive this moment. You wondered at that stare, but not for too long. Your own survival mattered more now, and with a glance around to check that no others were to interrupt your hungry rampage, you swivelled back towards its neck and with one powerful swipe of your beak, knocked the ratite senseless.

You then took a moment to check once again your surroundings, steering up to the sky high above for others who may be searching, and then to the ground for anything that may interrupt you. But all was clear. You then bent and started pecking away at the rib area, heading straight for the still-beating heart, to rip it out whilst it still pulsed. Ah, you thought, the supreme kill, the start of the feast, the days ahead to recharge you energy supply, and to cut up the carcass and place it in storage areas near you eyrie. But first the heart. That muscle alone will keep you going for a day or two, it's rich vitality providing extended nourishment. You rip into it, tasting the sweetness of the blood, glorifying in the warmth of the carcass, and ....

"AAAiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeee" The noise rang out like the devil banshee wind of the icy southerly over the great Alps, startling you in your endeavours. You look up in the direction of the noise and see the strange birds without feathers come running up towards you and your prey. You stand tall, to your full eight feet, spread your great wingspan, and let out the greatest cry that you have ever mustered, to frighten the meddling interlopers away. But they run on, closing faster and screaming even more, and your confidence is suddenly tested. You have never been tested before and you screech even louder, flapping your wings harder and menacing your head in their direction, but still they run on, and then you lose your nerve. The strangers are not afraid of you and then you realise that you may be the hunted! You grab the heart in your powerful beak, and start running as fast as your two awkward feet can carry you, beating your large wings furiously to gain flight, a feat you rarely achieve immediately unless there is a good wind to assist.

But there isn't any wind and your flapping is tiring your hungry muscles and the weight of the heart is becoming an encumbrance. A scream behind you forces your legs to run even harder, and finally, after dropping your prized possession, your massive body picks up a slight thermal and you start to lift, and very soon your legs no longer touch the ground and you are flying. You catch the full force of the breeze and start to lift, but as you turn back to have another look at the interlopers who have now reached you meal, a shaft of wood and stone flies past you and causes you to check your flight and to seek the safety of the high heavens.

You take one last look down at your prey. As you seek it's condition, you fail to realise that it is the
last time you will see Dinornus Robustus ever again, and that the new two legged creature you have lost your meal to will seal your fate forever. You fail to realise this, because you are a hungry Great Eagle, and because you live for now, for your own survival and the survival of your species. You fail to see that within one hundred short years, the greatest predator in the land to become known as New Zealand will be the Mori ori or Moa Hunters, as they will be known by the English Speakers. You will have lost your reason to be.

You sit upon your nest pondering the day before. You ponder the hunger. You ponder the strange creatures. You look around and take in the majesty of your mountain kingdom. You see the hills over forty miles away across the smoke filled plain. What you don't ponder is that one day, nestled under those hills will be a museum, and that your great skeleton will stand in that museum as a tribute to man's presence.

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