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Soaring High With Mighty Steppe Eagles: World Migratory Bird Day 2022

Voyaging through the valley on one fine bird-watching day our team spotted Steppe eagles on a clear October sky soaring high across the majestic Himalayas in the valley of Doon. The wait to sight these migratory species seems to be over as they finally begin to descend to their wintering grounds.

The Steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis) is one of the large eagles of India breeds in Central Asia and migrates to the Subcontinent

It is a bird of prey that breeds in Central Asia and migrates in an east-to-west direction to the subcontinent by crossing the magnificent Himalayas and making a much-needed ecological passage in the Himalayan region including the valley of Dehradun. In order to escape the harsh winter, they concentrate on the wintering grounds of South Asia to supplement their foraging needs from sources such as garbage dumps, landfills, and carrion dumping grounds. The steppe eagle completes its seasonal migration by returning to the north in the month of February-March after crossing over the snow-peaked Himalayas once again and hence repeats the same cycle every year!

Steppe Eagles cover a daily distance from 40 to 365 km per day taking approximately 65 days to reach their wintering grounds for autumn migration

Steppe eagles are concentrated in the foothills of the Himalayan Region during the winters. A large number of these birds congregate at the carrion dumping grounds where the dead animal carcasses are being dumped and therefore provide easily available food to their wintering population. 

The carrion dumping grounds are municipal city dumps or wastelands situated usually on the outskirts of a city with the regular presence of dead cattle carcasses being dumped by the neighboring cattle owners, resident population, and local communities. Steppe Eagles acts as scavenging bird sharing the carrions with the other raptor species (Himalayan Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Cinereous Vulture, etc. ) thereby relying on these sites as their winter foraging range. With the probable presence of tall trees and ample food availability, these carcass dumping grounds supplement perfectly both for meeting their foraging and roosting ecological needs. 

Steppe Eagle spends much of their time roosting on tall Semal and Shisham trees near the carcass dumping grounds

With the absence of favorable tall trees of Semal (Bombax ceiba),  Shisham (Dalbergia sissoo), and Sal (Shorea robusta) in their wintering sites which are replaced by high-tension power infrastructure; Steppe eagles currently face a significant threat of electrocution alongside other major threats like poisoning by insecticides, habitat destruction, and possible diclofenac poisoning.  Most of these birds succumb to death while foraging at these wintering grounds due to collisions with power lines, shows a pilot study in the Dehradun district funded by The Explorers Club conducted in the year 2020 by Sunny Joshi, a Ph.D. Scholar at Doon University and Himani Khati, a researcher at the Wildlife Institute of India. 

The Steppe eagle being a large-sized raptor bird requires tall trees with a height of 20m and above to roost after successfully foraging near the sites. The presence of power infrastructure with 30,000 Volt and high at carcass dumping grounds has proven to be extremely fatal to these free-flying birds.

The presence of power infrastructure with 30,000 Volt and higher near the carcass dumping grounds have proven to be extremely fatal to these free-flying birds

Steppe Eagle is considered a globally threatened bird and unfortunately classified as Endangered under IUCN ‘s Threatened Species List (BirdLife International 2016). Its population is rapidly declining and needs the urgent attention of key stakeholders (Researchers, Forest Departments, and Policy Makers) among other threatened species.

Nearly half of the planet’s bird species are declining according to the State of the World’s Birds Report 2022, a comprehensive report released by BirdLife International shows that India stands in the 6th place with the greatest number of globally threatened bird species. India has a high-integrity forest and their periodic loss due to intensive agriculture, fragmentation, and infrastructure development reduces its capacity to conserve our avifaunal wealth.

World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) reminds us to shift our attention to the lesser-known seasonal migrant bird species just as the Steppe Eagle which makes an arduous journey of crossing the unforgiving yet beautiful Himalayas and sharing with us their impressive story of migration. 

About the Author: 
Himani Singh Khati is a Researcher at the Wildlife Institute of India. Currently, she is working on the impacts of climate change on the forest ecology in the Western Himalayas, India. she is an avid birder and has been working on Raptor Conservation for about a decade.
Email: [email protected]


** All Images used in the post are captured by Sunny Joshi and Himani Singh Khati

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