Located in northern Karnataka, Belgaum lies at an altitude of 750 meters above sea-level and receives an average annual rainfall of 1500 mm. Rapid growth is quickly changing this once-sleepy town. The temperature usually varies from 13 degrees to 35 degrees Celsius, but in the recent past, it has touched the 40 degree mark. Belgaum is very rich in its bird diversity and close to 340 bird species have been listed for Belgaum City alone; if the radius is extended by 10 kms, the count goes up to 400-plus species. Belgaum’s close proximity to the Western Ghats is of great advantage, and as a result, many forest-dwelling birds are seen here. Until a few years ago, the canopy cover in Belgaum was very thick: old ficus trees, planted at the time of the British Raj, were a great attraction to fruit-eating birds. Malabar Pied Hornbills and Brown-headed Barbets, considered to be forest dwellers, were a common sight in those days.
On the outskirts of Belgaum, a biggish stream called Ballari flows from the west to the east. It cuts across the town as well as paddy fields, to ultimately meet the river Markandeya. In the monsoon, overflowing water from this stream gets trapped in the surrounding fields and forms a very attractive water body. Woolly-necked Storks, Painted Storks, Open-billed Storks, a pair of Lesser Adjutants, ibises, herons, egrets, waders, moorhens, water-cocks, cormorants and a few species of ducks congregate on this water body.
The Greater Spotted Eagle is Belgaum’s first wintering eagle; it starts showing up as early as the end of October. As the winter progresses, the number of Greater Spotted Eagles grows to 8 or 10 individuals. They can be seen perched on tall trees early in the mornings. These eagles keep a constant watch over other raptors and are frequently seen pirating food from them. On one instance, I saw a Greater Spotted Eagle taking down a juvenile Purple Heron, and on another I saw it feeding on an Indian Spotted Eagle; whether it was feeding on a dead eagle or it had killed it, was unclear. Greater Spotted Eagles are very vocal and their calling frequency increases as the summer starts approaching.
Two Greater Spotted Eagles (Aquila clanga)
As the winter progresses, sightings of Steppe Eagles start increasing. Belgaum used to host large numbers of these mighty raptors every winter, and I once counted about 47 Steppe Eagles near a garbage dump. However, the shifting of the dump-yard to a new location and a new technique used to dispose the waste material has reduced the number of Steppe Eagles drastically.
Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis)
Along with the Steppe Eagles, in 2006 and 2007, we were delighted to spot the Imperial Eagle. There were two juvenile birds and one adult. Most times, these three birds were seen sitting on top of tall transmission towers, pirating food from smaller raptors. The size, speed and ferocious attack of these mighty birds made smaller raptors give up their prey as soon as they saw these eagles approaching. Without any aerial dogging, twisting or turning, they just dropped whatever they had in their talons. But, since the removal of the dump yard I mentioned before, these powerful Aquila (genus of true eagles) have not been seen again. Except the Golden Eagle, all major Aquila were seen regularly around Belgaum that year.
Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca)
Belgaum has two resident breeding Aquila: the Tawny Eagle and the Indian Spotted Eagle. In Belgaum, of the two, the Tawny Eagle is comparatively rarer. It breeds from November-April and chicks can be seen from early December. There are about three breeding pairs, but my observation is that they don’t breed every year, as only one chick has been seen every breeding season. For Tawny Eagles, the main prey is rodents, hunted or pirated from other raptors. On a few occasions, I have seen them picking up domestic hens from surrounding villages. The size of their nest is small considering the size of the eagles. The nesting tree is changed almost every year, but the nest is always located on the highest branch.
Tawny Eagle with a rat (Aquila rapax)
The other resident breeding Aquila, the Indian Spotted Eagle is abundant, and during a good year, the number of Indian Spotted Eagles can go up to 20 individuals in a small area. I have been observing four breeding pairs for the past decade, but just last year (2014-15), I located six breeding pairs. They breed in trees scattered around the paddy fields and breeding activity starts in March, when most of the migrant eagles have disappeared. Breeding activity goes right until the peak monsoon; chicks are seen in the month of June and they fledge by July-August. These eagles feed exclusively on field rodents in my area and have become a great help to farmers. In my decade of observations, I have seen them prey on frogs twice and on a garden calotes once. The real danger for these eagles is the ever-expanding human habitation.
Indian Spotted Eagle (Aquila hastata)
Indian Spotted Eagle (Aquila hastata) with a rat
A pair of Crested Hawk Eagles and a pair of Bonelli’s Hawk Eagles also breed around Belgaum. The humongous Crested Hawk Eagle nest is located on a huge mango tree. The breeding activity in this nest starts mid-December or early-January and goes well into April. Juvenile Crested Hawk Eagles are sighted very frequently and they usually confine themselves to the thick canopy cover along a stream. Crested Hawk Eagles seem to be well respected by other breeding Aquila. A few times, I have seen a juvenile Crested Hawk Eagle come too close to an Indian Spotted Eagle’s nest, and in such encounters, the nervousness of the parent birds is apparent. In one case, the female Indian Spotted Eagle was brooding and the male was perched some distance away. As soon as the female saw the juvenile Crested Hawk Eagle, she gave a distinct alarm call, causing the male to instantly but discreetly come to the nest. Both birds very keenly watched the movements of the juvenile eagle. But, other intruders like kites, crows, or other birds elicit a very different reaction from the pair – an aggressive response that drives away any intruders in the vicinity.
Crested Hawk Eagle (juvenile) (Nisaetus cirrhatus)
The Bonelli’s Eagle pair is a visitor to Belgaum, though not a frequent one. The sight of a single Bonelli’s Eagle makes all the other birds very nervous, and the whole water body takes to wings. They only settle down after the eagle is out of sight. Bonelli’s Eagles are the most capable hunters I have ever seen. I once saw a pair of Bonelli’s Eagles tackling a peahen, but she escaped. I have also seen them feeding on Black-naped Hares a few times. According to the farmers in the area, a Bonelli’s Eagle regularly preys on their domestic hens. It’s a thrill to watch the pair tackling their prey and the grace with which they flush out quails, spur-fowls or hares hiding in bushes.
Bonelli’s Eagle (Aquila fasciata)
One more small but efficient hunter, the Booted Eagle, makes its presence felt occasionally. Due to their secretive habits, Booted Eagles are very rarely seen perched in the open. They prefer to perch in thick canopy and look for their favorite prey, Cattle Egrets. These eagles soar after 9 am, when they get thermal currents.
Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus)
There is a pair of Short-toed Eagles seen frequently in Belgaum and they probably breed in the surrounding areas. Many times, I have seen the pair flying with a juvenile bird. Very rarely, Crested Serpent Eagles are also seen around the fields of Belgaum, quietly searching for reptiles.
Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)
Crested Serpent Eagle (juvenile) (Spilornis cheela)
Since this article is about all the eagles of Belgaum, I must mention that a few years ago, a lone Black Eagle (Ictinaetus malayensis) was seen lying by the road-side. No external injury was perceived, but the bird looked ill. We tried to save him, but unfortunately, he did not survive for long. On two separate occasions, I have also seen White-bellied Sea Eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster) soaring at great altitudes right in the center of the city, flying westwards.
During my early years of birding, I use to wait for winters to observe migratory eagles and now, after more than two decades of birding in Belgaum, the sight of the Greater Spotted Eagle tells me that winter is around the corner. After travelling all over India in search of different birds, I have come to the conclusion that it is more rewarding to learn exhaustively about a few species, their behavior, migratory patterns, or adaptation to habitat changes, than to try and see all the species in the country.
I stand on the a small hillock and see a few kites soaring in the blue sky, and a couple of eagles circling with them over the expanse of fields, grasslands and the Ballari stream with its magnificent trees. Then, I notice at a distance, how human habitation has been slowly encroaching on this eagle-scape, making me fervently hope that Belgaum continues to remain a good home for eagles even in the future.