Sea Eagles of Malabar Coast

Awesome in the air: White-bellied Sea Eagle in flight, Bekal, 26 Jan. 2011

Its goose like nasal honking-call alarms the fishermen on fish shoals that form ”Chakara” and the turning of the tide.  In their mating falls with locked talons from greater heights to the ground they honk in unison. It has more than ten local Malayalam names says Dr Jafer Palot who did his Ph D on the White-bellied Sea Eagle.  People in north Malabar call it Mukorachan (forefather of fisherfolk) and Kamala (as it kills sea snakes as if by a magical mantra used by the indigenous medics called Kamala).

The struggle is on for survival: Less than 30 adults remaining in Kerala

According to eco-activist and author Dr E Unnikrishnan (Kavunni) it is a grace and legend of the sea.  This big, awesome grey and white bird is a rare delight for human eye and the reflective mind.  Its soaring flight and elegant movements against the blue sky are blissful and enthralling for the imaginative and visually sensitive.

Breeding adult near nest on a Pipal, Kizhur/Kalanad Sastha shrine, Chandragiri, Kasaragod

Unfortunately this unique avian creature is vanishing in this part of the world though they are present all over the south Asian coast  up to Australia.  Even in Australia their numbers are dwindling.  Once it was present all along the long coastline of India from Gujarat to Bengal.  But today It is diminished to Kannur and Kasaragod coastline alone, in Kerala.  Around 30 adults are left in Kerala.  It is literally absent from the Kochi and Travancore coasts.

Juvenile in nest, Bekal, Kasaragod

The Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department conducted a survey of Kasaragod coast from Payyannur to Kumbala today (26 Jan. 2011) under the initiative of DFO, Mr Joju C T of the flying squad in collaboration with Jafer Palot, V C Balakrishnan, Praveen Neythal and Kavunni.  The Government is also planning to financially assist the families having nests in their plots to conserve them. I was fortunate to join the party near Kanjangad this morning.

Adult WB Sea Eagle, Bekal

The team visited around 15 nesting sites of the White-bellied Sea Eagle along this coastline.  Most of them were formerly identified and visited by Jafer as part of his doctoral research.  The Sea Eagles use the same nest every year.  They may have one or two chicks but mortality is high among the juveniles because of various unconfirmed reasons.  That is why their population is shrinking.

Adult parent in nest on a Mango tree, Kottikulam Railway Station, Kasaragod

These graceful marine predatory birds use tall mango trees, Palai trees, Casuarinas etc. to build their nest within the vicinity of the sea .  The typical nest is around one meter in diameter and is made up of large twigs.  Both parents guard their young ones and bring sea food to them.  The bones of sea-snakes, eels, fish and even sea gulls are seen beneath along with the white droppings.

Adult eating fresh catch on a Banyan near Kappil beach, Uduma, Kasaragod

Most of the nests  are sheltered in ancient shrines or Kavus as in Palakunnu in Thalangara or Sastha temple Kavu in Kalanad (Kizhur) near Chandragiri.  Kavunni says he is in hot pursuit for the last fifteen years.  Some sympathetic families are also protecting the nests like the Shenoys of Bekal and Basheer family of Muttam north of Kumbala.

Adult breeding bird near nest on a Palai tree, Cheerumba Kavu, Palakunnu, Thalangara

It was a great and illuminating experience for me to be with stalwarts like Jafer, Kavunni, V C B, Joju and Neythal Praveen.  I learn a lot from them and nature at large and the ongoing struggles of this great bird for survival.  I salute my maverick friends who follow the flight and fight of this unique creature against extinction within the boundaries of Kerala.

Kavunni, VCB, Praveen & Narayanan before the tall Palai with the nest in Cheerumba Kavu, Palakunnu, Thalangara
The huge Pipal housing the nest in Sastha shrine Kizhur/Kalanad, Chandragiri
An intimate portrait: On the Pipal at Sastha shrine, Kalanad
Fighting hard for survival: Two chicks in Sastha shrine nest
Will it make a come back?

Sea Eagle of Bekal

Breath-taking Bekal

Bekal is a green paradise rocked by the roaring waves during the Monsoon on the northern coast of Kerala.  The historic fort at Bekal was a natural red soiled mount that was refashioned into a fort in the middle ages.  It is a geo-politically strategic location at the edge of the Arabian Sea, some 15 km south of Kasaragod.

The Bekal fort was originally conceived and developed by the Mushika kings of the Ezhimala and the Kolathiris in the 15th and 16th centuries.  It became part of Bednur Naiks’ citadels in the west coast for some time.  Shivappa Naik rebuilt it and strengthened it.  Later it fell into the hands of Haider Ali, Tipu Sultan and the British after the fall of Mysore.  Now the site is with the Archeological Survey of India and has immense historical and ecological  importance.  The adjacent village is called Pallykara even today and it is also important to remember that Mushika dynasty was a Buddhist one originally.

The Crown of Arabian sea on the west coast

In monsoon the place turns out to be an ethereal  landscape of green and blue.  The mosses and ferns that grow on the red stones of the walls and fortifications and the green grass that engulfs the whole hillock inside and outside the fort make it a cradle of soothing hues, fresh and throbbing with life and desire.  From the top of the watch tower at the centre of the fort you can have a panoramic view of the sea and the land.  The coastline is visible beyond expectations to both sides.

The place is also marked by increased bird activity.  Even at the peak of the monsoon we can see plenty of Brahmany Kites flying around the coast.  Some House Swifts have colonized the old walls of the ruined fort.  Plenty of Plain and Ashy Prinias  are also found in the thickets and bush within the fort.

But I was amazed by the sight of a solitary White-bellied Sea Eagle in late June here.  It was gently cruising along the coastline on a Sunday morning in the last week of June 2010.  I visited the site again today (Sunday, August 1, 2010).  This time it was  evening  just around 6.  I caught sight of this magnificent and graceful bird flying above the coastal waters.

White-bellied Sea Eagle in Bekal coast

It was a majestic sight to watch its gray upper parts and whitish underparts.  The white patch at the edge of the tail was also distinct.  I was doubly delighted to watch two more birds join the first one.  They were having a fight like scene with honking calls and swift movement in mid air.  I got a few distant shots and birds dispersed and vanished in seconds.

Sea Eagle spreading its wings above the sea

Anyway I was lucky to get a glimpse of this rare and threatened bird which once hovered all along our long coastline.  I remember people like Dr Jaffer Palot writing and talking about this bird and the decline in its population mainly due to increased human interventions and pollution in the coastal belt.  It is clear that they are struggling for their survival still out there.

Three Sea Eagles together