Monday, June 17, 2013

Enthralled on the Shore

Overlooking the picturesque sunset point of National Centre for  Antarctic and Ocean Research, Goa, I was soaking in the salt-laden but fresh air flowing south-east, trying to gather my thoughts on the (not very encouraging) events happened earlier in the day. Headland Sada, the place where the NCAOR campus stands, is a gentle hill that rises steeply towards the west of Mormugao port. Sunset point in the campus is located at the western edge of the land which drops sharply into the Arabian Sea, creating several V shaped incisions into the coastline. The steep rolling edge of the sea at the sunset point is also shaped as one such giant V. At the edge of the sea, just below the sunset point, were deep cut rocks, moulded so due to repetitive lashing by the merciless tides.


Monsoons had already arrived in Goa, bringing with them a continuous wind flowing from the west. I looked down to find a small crescent-shaped structure rising up the steep slope on the sea edge, visible from the sunset point. It was well past 6 in the evening; the sun had taken the colour and glow of an enlarged moon obfuscated by the dark rain clouds. The crescent rose up till it came to my eye-level, stayed still for a few moments before rising higher in air. It had red-rusty wings and a pale white head, a Brahminy Kite Haliastur indicus. The kite flew higher and higher till it reached a point from where it slid horizontally towards the northern edge of the coast. I was happy to see a raptor so close and felt a little sense of pride within my ignorant heart, to have seen a high-flying raptor from a position much above it.

The sea waves lashing the NCAOR coast
Still dwelling in the false pride, I saw three more kites of the same gotra, if I may equate it with species, soaring well above me in the south-western direction, as if mocking me of my 2-dimensional existence. The sense of pride was now replaced with awe at the controlled manner of their flight. None of them batted a wing but still manoeuvred easily along the path they wished to take. One of the Brahminy Kites lowered itself into the V, gradually without flapping a wing, scanning over the rocks that held fort against the unrelenting onslaught of the waves. For a moment the time stood still, as the kite inclined the wings to position itself in the middle of the giant V, putting to practice thousands of years of skills, inherited over several generations, to maintain oneself in the turbulent monsoon winds. Suddenly, like an accomplished combat aircraft breaking away from a unidirectional formation flight, the kite rose upwards, effortless as it seemed from where I stood, but with impeccable control over the speed, taking generous help from the gush of wind that was escaping upwards from the V. I glanced up to congratulate the practiced raptor for its magnificent show to find its superior, a White-bellied Sea Eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster  making its way towards the sea in solitary splendour.

Photo taken in Sundarbans.
 At NCAOR, my camera battery died after the record pic of the
 Sunset point that I took after much dilly-dallying :-(

Sea-eagles are masters of flight. Equally famous is their flight displays during courtship when the pair interlocks claws and hurtles down from a considerable height at a perilous speed rolling like a wheel. Sea-eagles inhabit eco-tones, at the convergence of two habitats, like coastlines, along with other species like Brahminy kites and Ospreys. These raptors require large trees or rock faces for nesting and roosting and hunt along the shorelines, large estuaries and inshore waters. To them vegetation plays a lesser role than topography in selection of the feeding areas. During a typical hunt, sea-eagles swoop down rapidly into water for fish, scooping it with their long talons, killing and feeding in mid-air. They have also been seen pursuing rodents, snakes, fruit bats, seagulls, cormorants etc. There is also one report of a White-bellied Sea-eagle preying on the hatchlings of Salt-water Crocodile Crocodylus porosus.
Brahminy Sundarbans (Pic: Deb)

Similar resource requirements and habitat led sea-eagles and kites to share many common features, including fishing, scavenging, pirating of food, courtship displays and breeding habits. Incidentally, Brahminy kite is supposed to be the closest living link of the sea-eagles to their past ancestors. On the west coast of India, these aerial predators spend most of their time searching for the prey along the jagged shoreline. Spectacular flying skills are needed to augment their predatory features to hunt the prey in these windy areas. The utmost concentration with which they scan for probable food along the coast while effortlessly modifying their flight patterns to suit the wind direction and speed is an inspiration in itself. White bellied sea eagle, contrasted against the Sun with the characteristic underbelly suggested in their name, glides incessantly, like an intoxicated Himalayan ascetic wanders along the treacherous tracks of the great mountains, unconcerned with the equally befuddled followers who follow him all along.

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