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Flight of the Falcons: Migration, Conservation, and Great Resilience

Every year, hundreds of thousands of Amur falcons congregate at the Doyang Reservoir in Nagaland, on their epic annual migration from East Siberia to southern Africa.

Text by: RG Sustain Staff
Photos by: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Raptors are hunters. A raptor by definition is a bird of prey, one that derives its nutrition primarily from eating flesh. Some may hunt and capture their meals, others like vultures primarily eat carrion, still others supplement their hunting by stealing from smaller birds. Birds from this class are generally characterised by strong eyesight, long talons, and knife-like beaks suited to tear their prey. Raptors also have relatively long lifespans and low reproductive rates.

Like many creatures that hunt, raptors are largely solitary in nature, pairing only during the breeding season — which is what makes species such as the Amur falcon (Falco amurensis) so fascinating. Every year, hundreds of thousands of these raptors make a pilgrimage together from their home turf in China and Siberian Russia, all the way to southern Africa, via India and the Arabian Sea. Their journey covers an estimated 22,000 km.

Along the way, these mega-flocks make a number of stops, in Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Assam, to recuperate from their journey, and fortify themselves for their nonstop flight over the Arabian Sea. But ever since the Doyang Reservoir was constructed near the Naga village of Pangti in July 2000, the birds have been congregating around its hills en masse. “No one knows the number,” says Dr Asad Rahmani, a conservationist, and former director of BNHS. “Perhaps a million birds,” he estimates. “It is the largest congregation of any raptor in the world.”

The Doyang Dam collects water from the Doyang River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, that originates in the Jafpu Hills of Meghalaya, and makes its way across Nagaland. The vicinity of the reservoir is a birding hotspot, where numerous residential and migratory bird species are found.  Amur falcons are named after the Amur River, which forms the border between far east Russia and northeastern China.

The Doyang Dam collects water from the Doyang River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, that originates in the Jafpu Hills of Meghalaya, and makes its way across Nagaland. The vicinity of the reservoir is a birding hotspot, where numerous residential and migratory bird species are found.
Amur falcons are named after the Amur River, which forms the border between far east Russia and northeastern China.

Amur falcons are not permanent residents of Doyang. The birds arrive around mid-October every year, stay for a few weeks, and then make their way across the India and the Arabian Sea to Africa, where they spend the winter months. They do not halt in Nagaland on their return journey; ornithologists are yet to understand why.

Amur falcons are not permanent residents of Doyang. The birds arrive around mid-October every year, stay for a few weeks, and then make their way across the India and the Arabian Sea to Africa, where they spend the winter months. They do not halt in Nagaland on their return journey; ornithologists are yet to understand why.

Upon their arrival in Doyang, the falcons congregate each evening in large numbers in mega-roosting sites like this tree, roost in trees, with dozens of birds perched on every branch.

Upon their arrival in Doyang, the falcons congregate each evening in large numbers in mega-roosting sites like this tree, roost in trees, with dozens of birds perched on every branch.

When dawn breaks, they set out on foraging trips to hunt for grasshoppers, dragonflies, and alates or winged termites. A significant part of the falcon’s time in Doyang is spent eating, to replenish energy reserves, and stock up for their journey to Africa. Studies show that Amur falcons fly nonstop, from India over the Arabian Sea, until they reach Somalia. It is the longest overwater flight of any raptor, estimated to be around 4,000 km.

When dawn breaks, they set out on foraging trips to hunt for grasshoppers, dragonflies, and alates or winged termites. A significant part of the falcon’s time in Doyang is spent eating, to replenish energy reserves, and stock up for their journey to Africa. Studies show that Amur falcons fly nonstop, from India over the Arabian Sea, until they reach Somalia. It is the longest overwater flight of any raptor, estimated to be around 4,000 km.

Once they arrive in Africa, the birds disperse widely. “I have seen them almost all over South Africa,” says Dr Rahmani. “On the grasslands, sitting on wires, in small flocks of 20-50 birds. Individual birds are also common,” he adds. In Russia, where the falcons spend the summer months, the birds live in pairs or small groups.

Once they arrive in Africa, the birds disperse widely. “I have seen them almost all over South Africa,” says Dr Rahmani. “On the grasslands, sitting on wires, in small flocks of 20-50 birds. Individual birds are also common,” he adds. In Russia, where the falcons spend the summer months, the birds live in pairs or small groups.

Male and female Amur falcons are discernibly different. Males (top) have grey plumage, with rufous-orange feathers in the thigh area. Females (bottom) in contrast, have stunning black-and-white plumage on the underside, but look pale grey when their wings are folded. “The combination of reddish-orange eye-ring and feet distinguishes them from all other falcons,” says the E-birds web page on Falco amurensis.

Male and female Amur falcons are discernibly different. Males (top) have grey plumage, with rufous-orange feathers in the thigh area. Females (bottom) in contrast, have stunning black-and-white plumage on the underside, but look pale grey when their wings are folded. “The combination of reddish-orange eye-ring and feet distinguishes them from all other falcons,” says the E-birds web page on Falco amurensis.

Nagaland has a complicated history with Amur falcons. In 2012, reports of large-scale hunting of these birds emerged from the Pangti district of Nagaland. Poachers from the region were using their fishing nets to catch the birds, by suspending them vertically to create a netted wall. Thousands of falcons were killed. Some were eaten, while the excess was sold in local markets, alongside other wild birds.

Nagaland has a complicated history with Amur falcons. In 2012, reports of large-scale hunting of these birds emerged from the Pangti district of Nagaland. Poachers from the region were using their fishing nets to catch the birds, by suspending them vertically to create a netted wall. Thousands of falcons were killed. Some were eaten, while the excess was sold in local markets, alongside other wild birds.

Thankfully, Doyang caught the attention of conservationists Ramki Sreenivasan from Conservation India, and Bano Haralu, a journalist and more recently, managing trustee of the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust. With media coverage, local campaigns, and the help of organisations such as Wild Naga, Wildlife Trust of India, BNHS and BirdLife International, Bano began to spread awareness about the Amur falcons in her home state.

Thankfully, Doyang caught the attention of conservationists Ramki Sreenivasan from Conservation India, and Bano Haralu, a journalist and more recently, managing trustee of the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust. With media coverage, local campaigns, and the help of organisations such as Wild Naga, Wildlife Trust of India, BNHS and BirdLife International, Bano began to spread awareness about the Amur falcons in her home state.

With time, Pangti’s people turned from poachers to protectors. The settlement transformed into an eco-village, and residents began to earn their livelihoods as nature guides and homestay owners. Falcon numbers improved, and Pangti became something of a poster child for inclusive conservation, which involves locals that live alongside wildlife.

With time, Pangti’s people turned from poachers to protectors. The settlement transformed into an eco-village, and residents began to earn their livelihoods as nature guides and homestay owners. Falcon numbers improved, and Pangti became something of a poster child for inclusive conservation, which involves locals that live alongside wildlife.

Today, Pangti calls itself “Amur Falcon Capital” and residents of the village are actively engaged in protecting the visiting raptors. Locals host a festival called the “Amur Falcon Conversation Week” to invite travellers to their little village in the Wokha District of Nagaland. In neighbouring Meghalaya, an Amur falcon festival is celebrated yearly, in Tyrso Pyllun (1 hr from Shillong), where the birds have begun congregating in some numbers.

Today, Pangti calls itself “Amur Falcon Capital” and residents of the village are actively engaged in protecting the visiting raptors. Locals host a festival called the “Amur Falcon Conversation Week” to invite travellers to their little village in the Wokha District of Nagaland. In neighbouring Meghalaya, an Amur falcon festival is celebrated yearly, in Tyrso Pyllun (1 hr from Shillong), where the birds have begun congregating in some numbers.

Hopefully, this means that the raptors will continue to visit India on their awesome journey to Africa. We too can do our part in ensuring their safe passage. If you do travel to see the Amur falcon migration, choose a mindful tour operator, support local efforts, and always put the birds first.

Hopefully, this means that the raptors will continue to visit India on their awesome journey to Africa. We too can do our part in ensuring their safe passage. If you do travel to see the Amur falcon migration, choose a mindful tour operator, support local efforts, and always put the birds first.

Dhritiman Mukherjee
Dhritiman Mukherjee

is one of India's most prolific wildlife and conservation photographers. His work has been featured in leading publications. He is also a RoundGlass Ambassador, and an RBS Earth Hero awardee.

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