Encounter: Running into a golden raptor

A glimpse of the majestic Golden Eagle
When I set out on the Madmaheshwar trek in September 2010, I had not entertained hopes of seeing a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos daphanea) as the altitudes we would frequent would not be high enough to be the habitat of this majestic raptor. But even at the beginning of our trek, near Gaundhar, we had seen four or five long-winged eagles soaring over a bugyal (alpine meadow) overlooking the Gaundhar village. They were too far for identification but from the shapes of their wings we thought they might be Golden Eagles. But we had nothing to bet on.

The sighting of note occurred at the end of the trip. We were in pieces with creaking joints and strained muscles as we completed the 10 km descent from Madmaheshwar to Gaundhar village.

We walked over to the humble hotel of Mr Panwar, had tea and debated whether to go down to the river Mandakini for a bath or get one in the bathroom. Finally, my fellow-trekkers Sahastra and Rohit decided to go down to a pipe fed by a rivulet, and I decided on the bathroom.

Within five minutes I was fresh from my first bath in five days (in icy cold water, to boot). From the terrace of Kailash Hotel I looked out for birds as the sun dipped behind the mountains. I saw something glide high above us but let it pass, thinking it was a griffon. But when I saw the fanned tail, I realized it was an eagle and ran in to get my telephoto lens. I followed it in burst mode as it flew higher towards the top of the hill, at the foot of which the Gaundhar village lay.

The bird perched on a leafless tree and was hidden from view. I lingered, waiting for it to emerge, and eventually it did take off from that perch. The sun had set completely by then and the bird, making absolutely no fuss, slowly glided to the opposite hill -- much lower this time -- favouring some better shots. It descended to a tree high up on the hill across the Mandakini and the darkness closed in like curtains drawn on a splendid show.

Text and pictures by Sandeep Somasekharan