Charles Edward Douglas might have been the last man to see the incredible Haast’s eagle alive.
Mainly because he shot and ate them.
Haast’s eagle was the largest eagle to ever have existed. A massive 15kg (the largest now comes in about 9kg), it was big and powerful enough to hunt moa.
The Haast’s eagle lived in the South Island and was only known from its remains described by famous explorer Julius von Haast. It was believed to have been extinct since the 1400’s likely because as the moa was hunted to extinction, its prey died out.
It was a formidable predator with huge talons and a wingspan of over two metres.
It is now believed to be the pouakai or giant bird of Maori legend - which was said to be able to kill a person.
Charles Douglas was born on July 1, 1840, to James and Martha Douglas in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father worked as an accountant to the Commercial Bank of Scotland and for a while Charles worked alongside him.
But in 1862 he came to New Zealand on the Pladda and ended up going gold mining. He also ran stock to the gold fields.
By 1868 he was travelling with von Haast and becoming increasingly interested in geology and the wildlife.
He continued roaming and he mapped and recorded nearly all he saw and reported them to the chief surveyor.
He rarely settled down and by the late 1870’s was being paid for his expeditions, exploring South Westland, the valley of Paringa, Haast, Landsborough, Turnbull, Waiatoto, Arawata and the Cascade rivers. His dogs - first Topsy then Betsey Jane - were often with him.
Charlie - as he was usually called - never married and was often a heavy drinker. He was usually seen carrying his distinctive batwing tent, was considered shy and spoke slowly. He carried a field book that he wrote his thoughts and observations down in.
Rheumatism slowed him down and in 1906 he suffered a stroke in Paringa then a second before retiring in Hokitika in 1908.
He was awarded the 1897 Royal Geographical Society Gill Memorial prize for his explorations.
Charlie often drew and wrote about what he saw, numerous watercolours are still in collections around New Zealand - along with a monograph on the birds of South Westland in which he details shooting and eating two immense raptors in the Haast River Valley.
He wrote “The expanse of wing of this bird will scarcely be believed. I shot two on the Haast, one was 8 feet 4 inches (2.54 m) from tip to tip, the other was 6 feet 9 inches (2.06 m), but with all their expanse of wing they have very little lifting power, as a large hawk can only lift a duck for a few feet, so no one need get up any of those legends about birds carrying babies out of cradles, as the eagle is accussed [sic] of doing.”
It was considered they could have been Haast’s eagles. They might also have been Eyle’s harrier - also extinct.
Mount Douglas, the Douglas pass and the Douglas river are all named after him.
Charlie died on 23 May 1916 and is buried in Hokitika Municipal Cemetery and fittingly, a pickaxe - a tool of the explorer - is engraved on his headstone.
Picture of Moa bones from Te Papa’s collection.
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