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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Birding the Extrordinary: Raptors

[India, Winter 2013]

Birds of prey are a fascinating group of species comprising hawks (including kites, buzzards, eagles, harriers and vultures), falcons (including kestrels and caracaras), owls and two singularly unique species --  the Osprey and Secretary Bird. But, all have one thing in common: these are birds that kill.

During the author's recent trip to India, the following raptor species were observed:
  1. Black Kite
  2. Brahminy Kite
  3. Black-shouldered Kite
  4. Long Legged Buzzard
  5. White-eyed Buzzard
  6. Shikra
  7. Osprey
  8. Egyptian Vulture
  9. Marsh Harrier
  10. Pallid Harrier
  11. Booted Eagle
  12. Crested Serpent Eagle
  13. Short-toed Eagle
  14. Steppe Eagle
  15. White-bellied Sea Eagle
  16. Peregrine Falcon
  17. Common Kestrel 
  18. Barn Owl
  19. Collared Scops Owl
  20. Spotted Owlet
Kites are hawks with long wings which they put to good use by soaring the skies and feeding on insects and other small prey; they are not above scavenging and will readily feed on carrion.

Black Kite seen at Morjim Beach, Goa

There is nothing black about the Black Kite (formerly known as the Pariah Kite) except for its bill. It is an abundant and bold raptor of the subcontinent and every school-going child in India knows to protect their sandwich from the kite's swoops during lunch break. Other than stealing lunch, they are frequently found around rubbish dumps.

Brahminy Kite seen in Goa

The striking Brahminy Kite (known as the impressively sounding Red-backed Sea Eagle in Australia) is about the same size as a Black Kite but favors scavenging on dead fish and is found coastally or near inland water bodies. Its pale beak and white upper body contrast strongly with its red wings, back and tail.

Haliastur indus seen in Goa

The Brahminy Kite ranges throughout the subcontinent, into Southeast Asia, New Guinea, Australia and the Solomon Islands.

Black-shouldered Kite seen in Haryana

Black-shouldered Kite was earlier considered conspecific with our own White-tailed Kite. This is a smallish, white kite with red eyes and black shoulders. Unlike the Black and Brahminy Kites, the Black-shouldered is predominantly a hunter rather than a scavenger and is a specialist at finding prey while hovering.

Long-legged Buzzard seen in Haryana

Long-legged Buzzard is a bigger version of the closely related Rough-legged Hawk (known in the Old World as Rough-legged Buzzard).

Breeding in Central Asia and Southern Europe, it winters in India and North Africa.

White-eyed Buzzard seen at Bharatpur

The White-eyed Buzzard is found in the subcontinent and Burma -- it is a medium hawk that feeds on small prey.


The Shikra (or Indian Sparrowhawk or Little Banded Goshawk) is a formidable hunter of small birds, rodents and lizards. It is found throughout the subcontinent, SE Asia and also Africa.

Osprey feeding on fish; River Zuari, Goa.

The Osprey is a unique raptor (unique enough to warrant its own family) which is found all over the world. It feeds almost exclusively on fish (although I've observed them swoop on the odd (and unfortunate) Snowy Plover in SW Florida).

Osprey numbers were badly hit in the DDT days but have recovered since the pesticide was banned. They've also benefited from nesting platforms that have been erected in places such as SW Florida.

Egyptian Vultures seen at Chambal

Although Egyptian vultures are wide ranging from Europe, through Africa, to India; they are nevertheless classified as "Endangered" given the precipitous declines in their numbers.

Western Marsh Harrier (female)

There are 20 species of harriers in the world and Marsh Harrier is one that is widely distributed throughout Asia and Europe.

The female is a dark brown (1st photo); the male is lighter (above) and heavily streaked on the breast. Like other harriers, the Marsh Harrier specializes in preying on small prey in grasslands and wetlands.

Pallid Harrier seen in Goa

The male Pallid Harrier (here seen at a considerable distance) is a striking silvery grey. Breeding mainly in Central Asia, it is a "Near Threatened" species that is a winter visitor to India.

Booted Eagle seen at Bharatpur

Now, the eagles: first up is the Booted Eagle -- a small eagle found in Europe, Africa and Asia. Unbelievably, it is one of the closest living relatives of the giant Haast's Eagle -- which, before its untimely extinction in the 1400's, was the prime predator of the Moa.

Crested Serpent Eagle seen at Ranthambhore

The next eagle is a specialist reptile killer -- the Crested Serpent Eagle. It is found all over tropical Asia.

Short-toed Eagle seen in Haryana

Another reptile hunter, but curiously named for the length of its toes, is the Short-toed Eagle. Although classified as "Least Concern", its population is in serious decline in Europe.

Steppe Eagle seen in Haryana

The Steppe Eagle is a large eagle of Central Asia that overwinters in India. Like many raptors, it has a crop in its throat for digesting food -- a feature seen clearly in the pictures above.

White-bellied Sea Eagle

Similar in size to the Steppe Eagle, the White-bellied Sea Eagle is a coastal raptor ranging from India through SE Asia to Australia. Unlike the Osprey, which will dive for fish, the Sea Eagle's technique is more of a "swoop and pluck".

Peregrine Falcon seen in Goa

Now the 2 Falcons -- the Peregrine Falcon is the most global raptor in the world; found in every inhabitable corner of the globe, this fabled Falcon is a specialist bird killer. It is considered the fastest creature in the world by virtue of its high speed dives (up to 200 mph).

Common Kestrel seen in Rajasthan

Larger than the American Kestrel, the Common Kestrel is a falcon ranging in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Changing gears to the Owls:

Barn Owl seen in Goa

The Barn Owl is the "Peregrine" of owls -- i.e., it is the most globally widespread of all Owl species.

The Barn Owl is a rodent specialist and provides a valuable pest-control service to farmers (which is the reason they were introduced to Hawaii). However, the Barn Owl is not considered a "true owl" by virtue of its color, unique heart-shaped face, and longer legs.

Collared Scops Owl seen in Bharatpur

Finally, two "true owls" -- the Collared Scops Owl and the Spotted Owlet.

Spotted Owlet seen in Bharatpur

Spotted Owlet is related to other Athene owls, including our very own Burrowing Owl. Spotted Owlet is a common owl found all over India; not to be confused with the Critically Endangered Forest Owlet which was presumed extinct for over a hundred years until its rediscovery in 1997 by Pamela Rasmussen, who is a leading authority on birds of the subcontinent.

All taxa in Aves have something unique to offer; and, this grouping of Raptors is no exception. Osprey, hawks, falcons and owls are well represented in the US and have made a spectacular comeback from the 70's when many species were seriously endangered due to DDT poisoning. However, in India, it is another poison that is having the most detrimental impact on raptors -- especially Vultures. The anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac given to cattle (and later ingested by vultures) has caused a 99% drop in the vulture population. This is similar to the continued threat faced by the California Condor from lead poisoning due to bullet fragments in shot deer. Both examples highlighting the unintended consequences to wildlife by man's actions.

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