An Imperial Eagle

I was very surprised when I saw an Eastern Imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca) in the Rann of Kutch. I’d never seen this bird before, but my haphazard impression was that this is a bird of forests and open grasslands. I’d read about its tendency to nest in high and isolated trees, so that it could survey its surroundings from its high perch. I was also mistaken about the meaning of the adjective “Eastern” in its name. This did not imply an Asian population, but merely distinguished it from the Spanish species. So the Eastern Imperial eagle is the eagle of the Habsburgs, and the one that I saw was wintering in the desert. I wonder why the Habsburgs thought this was a majestic bird; because it mainly robs prey from other raptors?

Our first sighting was late in the first evening of my trip to the Rann. It sat on a high mound; the only thing that stuck out of the flat desert up to the horizon. As the sun faded, it sat there, not paying much heed to our jeep circling below the mound, trying to find the best angle for photos. The number of mature individuals across the world is less than 10,000. So I was very surprised to have another sighting the very next morning. It was the same area of the desert, so I’d probably seen the same individual twice. What was it doing in the desert? The desert is a wonderful habitat for raptors. Any water body attracts lots of birds and smaller animals, and the unobstructed views are a great delight to hunters of all species.

Entering the desert

It is late afternoon. A short detour from the highway over a bumpy stretch of land, and suddenly we are in the desert. The Little Rann of Kutch seems to be a perfectly flat landscape. I’m lost instantly. There was no landmark that I can see, but the drivers of jeeps here seem to find their way as if on signposted highways.

There must be ways of seeing. This is not barren land, there is life here. Over the next two days I’ll begin to understand its signs. There are clumps of hardy bushes, sometimes even trees. There are insects, birds which eat the insects, and birds which eat the birds which eat insects. There are lizards, jackals, and wild ass. There are scorpions and snakes. Sometimes I can see water in the distance; I will have to learn the difference between a mirage and the water. This is not too hard, it turns out. It is much harder to understand how the drivers navigate.

Now and then there is a hillock. Man made? We come across one near sunset. An imperial eagle rests on top of it. There is dry grass at the base of the hillock, and a white patch, clearly visible even in this failing light. Salt left by evaporated water. The Rann of Kutch lies below sea level, and covered with a sheet of water when the tide is sufficiently high. When the sea level rises this land will be the first to drown.

After the sun goes down the jeep drives around to the east, where there is a thin sheet of water between us and the hillock. The ground must be wetter here than in other places, because there is almost a forest of bushes. I wonder whether the water is permanent. Probably not; there are tyre tracks pointing into the water. Those must have been made when this area was dry. This is a wonderful angle to take a photo from. I’ve never lost cell phone connectivity through the day, so I could share the journey with The Family. Now I send her the last photo of the day.