|A juvenile, banking in flight|
With early winter the wetlands of India become the haunt of a chocolate-brown raptor, some individuals showing an odd facial coloration as if affected by leucoderma. This, to the uninitiated, is the Eurasian Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus), also known as the Western Marsh Harrier.
|A closer look at a juvenile|
I have often seen this bird in wetlands, sailing above the reeds, eyes fixed below, concentrating on the happenings in the reeds. It hovers momentarily above spots where prey is spotted, and makes a dive towards the target. This behaviour, which appeared to some observers that the bird was in search of something it had lost, earned it the name Kari thappi - Malayalam for "one who is searching for coal".
|A juvenile conducts a thorough search over a swamp|
Juveniles exhibit a chocolate-brown body, brown eyes and a bleached throat and crown. As the bird ages its plumage darkens and the underwings develop white bases to the primary flight feathers. The eyes start to turn yellow. Females, though, take longer to develop this jaundiced-eye look but compensate with their larger size.
In males the proportional contrast between the wingtips and the rest of the wing is extensive, offering one of the best identification characteristics for this bird while it is in flight. I have seen juveniles and females aplenty, but never an adult male.
|Adult female in flight|
This winter, however, I didn't spot a single Marsh Harrier. I'm not sure what made them skip their regular haunts. Perhaps they were dissuaded by the disturbance of their habitats around Mysore thanks to the widening of the Outer Ring Road. Or maybe it was because the rainy season was late and prolonged. Whatever be the case, I can't wait for winter. This time I'll scour every possible field to sight a male.
Text and photos: Sandeep Somasekharan
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