Giant Eagle!

eagle-moa-paintingI am very, very excited…today the team found something I really hoped they would – a piece of bone from a genuine monster.

Haast’s eagle (Harpagornis moorei) was the largest bird of prey that ever existed on Planet Earth – an enormous raptor with a wingspan pushing 3 metres (that’s 10 feet) and claws the size of a tiger’s (around 75 mm or 3  inches long). Actually they were basically flying tigers in a way – top of the food chain predators that hunted and killed another giant New Zealand bird – the moa. The largest moas were over 3 metres tall and weighed around 250kg, yet they were easy prey for Haast’s Eagle  –  enormous moa pelvis bones have been found with twin sets of claw marks in them – proof that  Haast’s Eagle could take down anything that walked through the forests of New Zealand – including people.

The giant eagles must have terrified the first people to land on these shores, especially since there would have been nothing even remotely like them back in the islands of Polynesia. Those early settlers must have quite literally not known what hit them. I found a clip of a BBC documentary called “Monsters We Met” on Youtube that paints a pretty vivid picture of what life must have been like sharing a forest with one of these giant  predators : Haast’s Eagle attack

This is a longer version of the clip, which for some reason is dubbed in Spanish and English at the same time –  a bit distracting but you get the general idea :

Scary stuff! We all like to go out into the bush when we can and soak in the beauty and tranquility of New Zealand’s wilderness, but 700 years ago, when people were living at Wairau Bar, the forest must have had a very different atmosphere – people would probably never go anywhere in the bush by themselves, and must have always felt like any second one of these flying monsters was going to swoop down and smash into them at 80 kilometres an hour with eight razor sharp claws.

Actually there’s a story about these giant eagles in the Wairau Bar area that has been passed down through the generations of the Rangitane people. Richard Bradley, the Rangitane representative here at the excavations, told it to me:

When people first arrived in this area,  a terrible flying taniwha called Ngarara Huarau began to attack them  and carry men women and children off to their deaths. A chief named Rongoimai Papa was determined to kill the monster, so his people could safely settle in the area. Rongoimai and a group of his warriors hid in a cave in a small bay just around the coast from here, and enticed the taniwha/giant eagle into landing in the narrow cove. Once it was on the ground (presumably feeding on some kind of bait they had left) the warriors charged out of the cave and Rongaimai broke the taniwha’s wing with his mere (club). Once the creature was crippled, it was swiftly beaten to death, and when its belly was slit open all the taonga (treasures) of the people it had carried away were revealed. It’s feathers were ripped out, and they turned into a special kind of eel found only in this region. With the dangerous monster vanquished, Rongoimai was able to safely build a pa and people could once more walk around without fear of attack from the sky.


If you’d never heard of the giant Haast’s Eagle, you might be tempted to dismiss this story as just a myth, but like many of these old Maori stories, there is no doubt an element of truth to it. When the first people arrived in New Zealand, around 700 years ago, there WERE flying taniwha that killed and ate people! And I would think the only way to kill one would be to get it on the ground when it’s at it’s most vulnerable. What makes this story even more amazing is today we found a taniwha bone!


You can imagine that the remains of these flying taniwha were considered valuable items – by possessing the fearsome creature’s bones, a person would absorb it’s power and mana. The bone we found is part of the ulna, or wing bone, which has been deliberately snapped off and begun to be crafted into an awl – a tool for punching holes in things. Bones like this were found at Wairau Bar during the original excavations in the 1940’s, all similarly crafted.

I’m secretly hoping we’ll find something like a claw, or even a skull, but I’m not holding my breath. Like all large predators such as tigers or Great White sharks, Haast’s eagle was probably never very common – by one estimate there were only around 1,000 of them when people arrived on these shores, and they only ever lived in the South Island. Once an even more efficient hunter arrived in New Zealand – the human – and began to compete for the eagle’s main food, moas, the flying taniwha quickly became extinct, fading from the physical world into a realm of myth and legend.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Haast’s Eagle (and you should be!) try here, here and here. Only three complete skeletons have ever been found, all in natural rather than cultural sites  – Te Papa and Otago Museum both have them on display.


PS keep an eye on the TV news tonight – we’re having a media open day, and there will be crews from TV1, TV3, Prime and Maori TV filming at the excavation site.


16 Responses to “Giant Eagle!”

  1. 1 Dan
    January 16, 2009 at 8:30 am

    Who is the scriptwriter for this site?!! It is a magic combination of history, thorough research, personalities, great camera-work, and helped along by a great sense of expectation. Well done. It is my first view each day. How close was the fire last evening?

  2. 2 wairau
    January 16, 2009 at 8:35 am

    Thanks Dan! I’m the writer and photographer – am glad you like it. The fire was across the other side of the river mouth, so never threatened us or the site.

  3. 3 irkstyle
    January 16, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Hi team! This is exciting. keep up the good work and thanks for the updates.

  4. 4 Sadie
    January 16, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Thanks for the links! As I was reading I was thinking of the best way to look up good information on the eagle and you saved me the time.
    Absolutely fascinating.

    Am I missing some videos or other place to see more of the details of the dig? I would love more if there is any! Maybe I am just not looking in the right place? Thanks!

  5. 5 wairau
    January 16, 2009 at 9:42 am

    Hi Sadie – I’m working on getting some video clips up on the site – as I’ve found out running a daily blog is a demanding job, so I’ve got my hands full. Video soon I promise!!


  6. 6 Sadie
    January 16, 2009 at 9:44 am

    Oh goodness, no hurry! I just thought I was missing some already posted, not demanding any!
    I’ll take what I can get, I am hooked!

  7. 7 RNH
    January 16, 2009 at 10:06 am

    A mate for the material at CM… in nice condition.

  8. 8 Lorraine
    January 16, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    This is so awesome. I am so looking forward to arriving at the site next Wednesday. And I agree with the previous writer about the magic writing, fantastic photos, diagrams and the information that is revealed each day just keeps getting better and better.

  9. 9 Leigh
    January 16, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Hi Quinn, thankyou so much for your time today! Your passion for, and reverence of, this unique site flows through your daily blogs, bringing it alive for people who can’t be there. That is so important, because the days of keeping secrets to preserve the past are gone. Every soul in New Zealand needs to know about the Bar and its history, because these people became the first ‘kiwis’ and are important to us all, even if we are not related. If today’s New Zealanders know about the Wairau Bar, they will keep it safe for the generations to come and thats the best way to preserve it.
    We loved seeing the dig today and we all were entranced. This land is so important to us too and we love seeing Rangitane’s passion for this place- its magical. Good tv coverage too we thought! Can’t wait to see more of your stunning photographs and video- cool! We wait with baited breath.
    Leigh and Paul (at the house)
    PS Bet you are looking forward to a cooler day tomorrow – we are!

  10. 10 Duncan
    January 16, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    Hi Quinn. Great stories and pictures. Did you take every photo yourself? I’m especially impressed by the photo of the rising sun lighting up the clouds.

    Do they need any more volunteers out there? I’m an Otago anthropology graduate and Blenheim’s my hometown. Please let me know if you need more people out there. Richard Walter is one of my old lecturers.



  11. 11 Pamela
    January 17, 2009 at 1:17 am

    Hi Quinn
    Just found your blog today and I’m really impressed – wonderful writing and pics. It’s great to be covering this through a blog so we can all share in such an important event and contemplate the issues involved.

    Thought you and others might be interested in two more Harpargornis images from Te Papa http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/search.aspx?__VIEWSTATE=%2FwEPDwUKMTAwNTY3MzM4MGRk2VIBUl0c8JJ0OrrEMBcNzXoTvg8%3D&term=harpagornis&search=Search including a painting by Paul Martinson.

    I’ll be following more posts with great interest, thank you. Years ago I worked for a few months as a student at Canterbury Museum and was lucky enough to help out at an excavation at Takahanga pa site, Kaikoura – I’ve never forgotten that summer and the amazing people we worked with there.


  12. 12 Taane
    January 17, 2009 at 8:55 am

    Interesting – tho I think the legend shouldn’t be interpreted too strongly as being about the eagle as if it was a proven fact. It *might* have started that way, but there is no actual proof in the story as first recorded, and the terms taniwha and ngarara appear in many other legends from all over NZ, and in a great many of those stories the monsters can’t be birds or flying creatures.

  13. 13 CC
    January 17, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Hi Quinn,

    Really enjoying the updates. So what’s life like on such a dig? Where does everyone stay, what facilities are on site, how do you get a daily blog out?


  14. 14 Lorraine
    January 17, 2009 at 10:53 am

    I was one of those proud mum’s watching the news items eagerly to catch sight of my daughters and I got to see them both. Beautiful.

  15. 15 dnagenie
    February 14, 2009 at 7:22 am

    Man, that is the type of thing we should try to clone. If we could get enough dna from those fossils, I bet we could get an ostrich to birth it and then study it. 700 years is relatively recent so maybe there will be enough still intact! one can only hope…

  16. May 21, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Jesus! That’s incredible! Good work! Congratulations!

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