Raptors of India.
Species account and abundance.
There are some 66 diurnal species that occur within the mainland Indian sub-continent, of which 38 could be said to breed within its geographical boundaries. Some 24 owl species occur, which is remarkably diverse despite many being restricted to small pockets. The numbers of breeding resident diurnal raptors is not that numerous and there would seem to be empty niches. There is for example no very large eagle south of the high Himalayan range. There are very few resident accipiters and Buteos south of the northern highlands.
One of the things a visitor to India is constantly reminded about is that the country is enormous and in some respects is more diverse than the continent of Africa with which its fauna is somewhat obscurely often compared. It has high temperate Alpine habitat (E.G. Kashmir) to is far north and true sand dune deserts such as the Thar Desert on the Pakistan border. To its north east lies a merging zone of fauna and flora between China and India (Arunachal Pradesh), where Clouded Leopards, Red Pandas, Gibbons and forest falconets still occur in dense moist jungles. In the core of the Indian peninsular are the highland wet mountains or the Western Ghats. It has every conceivable habitat and species of raptors that go with it. The only problem is that these places are very far apart and difficult to get to….requiring a fair amount of red-tape and reliance upon others, be it local authorities, a driver or a guide.
There is a division in the distribution of raptor species to “highland” regions and “the rest” of India. There are those highland species, those that dwell in cold rugged mountainous terrain, which include the “typical” Eurasian counterparts like the Golden Eagle, Booted Eagle, Eurasian Griffons, Lammergeyer, Eurasian Kestrel, Hobby, Common Buzzard, Long-legged Buzzard, Eurasian Goshawk and Eurasian Sparrowhawk. These species may prefer the higher latitude and the cool climate where tundra, Alpine, temperate broad-leaf and coniferous forest merge. Some may, like their more western European relatives, undertake a migration south and these may scatter throughout the peninsular. If the distribution maps in the guide books are a true indication there would seem to be a back and forth movement between these highlands and the vast interior of continental Eurasia to the semi-arid plains of southern Pakistan, the Punjab and western Rajasthan. Presumably the Himalayas themselves provide such an obstacle that raptors are obliged to fly around them. They share their summer breeding grounds with ‘true’ Asian and far eastern species such as the Lesser Fish Eagle, Himalayan Griffon , Red-napped Shaheen, Collared Falconet and the Oriental Hobby. Other highland species occur both in the Himalayan highlands and in the “Ghats”, highland ridges of high rain-fall on the East and West of the peninsular. These include the Indian Black Eagle, Crested Goshawk, Besra, Rufous-Bellied Eagle, Mountain Hawk Eagle and possibly the Grey-headed Fish Eagle. The North Eastern corner squeezed between the Himalayan Mountains and Burma and allowing passage into China, while rich in mammal and avian diversity has a few special raptors which include the Jerdon’s and Black Baza and Pied Falconet.
Changeable Hawk Eagle bathing in Bandhavgarh.
‘The rest’ includes Black Shouldered Kite, Black Kite, Brahminy Kite, White Bellied Sea Eagle (Marine only), Pallas’s Fish Eagle (possibly restricted to northern Indian inland wetlands), Egyptian, White rumped and Long-billed Vultures, (the Slender-billed is apparently restricted to the Gangetic Plain, although its distribution is still unclear), Red Headed Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, Shikra, Oriental Honey-Buzzard (breeding status unclear), White-eyed Buzzard (apparently an inter-Indian migrant/opportunistic breeder)., Bonelli’s eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle and Red-necked Falcon. These occur across a broad area of fairly monotypic habitat.
The Shikra (Accipiter badius)
There are two Eagles, the Tawny and the Indian Lesser Spotted Eagle that are supposed to occur across the country, although the Lesser Spotted has a more northern in distribution. These two species are poorly known, and certainly very rare. The Tawny Eagle looks and behaves so very differently to the African Tawny that is deserves much more attention, especially as it is in our experience incredibly rare.
The Indian Tawny Eagle.
The Indian Lesser Spotted, newly described may easily be confused with both migrant Spotteds and thus be subject to confusion. Again its status requires cautious examination. Two Large falcons the Lugger and Peregrine Falcon look on the distribution maps to cover the entire region. However the Lugger, based on what are now quite extensive field trips must be considered either critically endangered or perhaps even regionally extinct. True it occurs still in the dry deserts on the Pakistan border, but elsewhere in the heart of its previously known distribution none were seen. The Peregrine Falcon in India is divided by 3 sub-species, F.peregrinus babylonicus; F. p. peregrinator and F. p. calidus. But this seems overly simplified because our team have seen what appears to be year-round breeding peregrines inseparable from the nominate race F. p. peregrinus. So different are they from the Black Shaheen with whom they share their environment that the possibility for racial intergrades seems unlikely. Could there be yet another race of Peregrines residing within India?
Black Shaheen behind a typical Peregrine we saw in the Chambal river. (note this ‘normal’ Peregrine is “pasted” into the picture for comparison). The vast difference between these races is readily observed. There remains a question as to the status of these races.
Similarly the owls are divided in distribution by those that prefer high cold temperate ranges, conifer and deciduous forests, moist dense forests, semi-arid and ‘the rest’. As an example of the extremes in climate, rarities include Arctic strays like the Snowy Owl and Boreal Owl that occur in the same country as the Oriental Bay Owl! The profusion of Scops and Glaucidium Owlets is particularly impressive.
Collared Owlet (Glaucidium brodiei) . and The Indian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo bengalensis).
Brown Fish Owl (Keputa zeylonensis)
Inevitably we were to err in making comparisons with Africa. In Kenya where Munir and I live we could not but be surprised at the similarity of terrain, but the absence of common conspecifics, or the prevalence of those species we would least expect to see. For example, the Lugger Falcon (very similar to the Lanner Falcon) remained a dramatic example of apparent super-abundance of available habitat that was empty of its presence. Much to my chagrin Munir and Pat went to western Rajasthan after I left them in Delhi on the 9th Dec 07 to see Luggers aplenty and the migrant Himalayan and Black Vultures. Munir believed that some of the Luggers nested in old crow nests on pylons, implying that their nesting tastes were not that demanding and that the vast areas on Uttar and Madhya Pradesh in which we saw none boded a malevolent reason.
The Bonelli’s Eagle similar in most respects to our African Hawk Eagle was surprisingly often recorded in habitats admittedly under some form of protection, but still in areas of proximity to humans. But the African Hawk Eagle in Kenya has seen vast regional extinctions, and is even very rare in our smaller parks and reserves. It simply cannot mix with people, and is one of the most sensitive species even more so than the Martial Eagle. Why is it then that the Bonelli’s seems to be doing quite well and the Lugger so badly?
In Kenya we are used to enormous habitat variety within a very short space. We can drop from Alpine areas, through conifer, broad-leaf forests, down to open grass savannas, through Acacia dominated riparian areas criss-crossing semi arid landscapes in less than a morning’s drive. Each habitat has its own raptor specialists, and maybe of some significance, each biome may or may not be currently favoured by rainfall. These mixed habitats and discordant rainfall distributions do not help in pigeon-holing breeding seasons or timing migrant raptor visitations. In more temperate India, within less congested habitats in small areas we may fail in meeting some of our ‘spoiled’ expectations. Pat for example, coming from both South Africa and mid West America commented that he saw about as many raptors per kilometre in South Africa, but admitted that mid west USA had much more.
Whatever the potential for misconceptions, the fact that one can travel for so far and see so few resident raptors is disturbing. That one may encounter migrant species in greater abundance than resident species is a poor index of relative abundance, but it is helpful in describing the overall picture. In Kenya for example we see considerably more migrant Pallid Harriers (in the region of some 100 to 1) than the local resident African Marsh Harriers. One of these is acknowledged as threatened by IUCN criteria, the other not. It is actually a poor example because it is the opposite of what one would hope, but it does illustrate the need to think things through and to be cautious and precise before blowing the whistle.
Nevertheless there remains an uncomfortable feeling that some raptors are very much rarer than they were.