Species

Montagu’s Harriers: The Slender Hawks of Velavadar

Following the migratory path of locusts and grasshoppers, Montagu’s harriers were once one of the most common harriers to winter on the Indian subcontinent. This is less and less so as their favourite grassland habitats diminish

By Prashanth MB and T Ganesh

As we turn from Adhelai Main Road on to the Bhavnagar-Ahmedabad highway in Gujarat, we are welcomed by a vista of tidal creeks, long hedges of thorny, stunted trees, and an open expanse of cotton and jowar fields. It is September and the rainfall has receded, giving the landscape a pleasant green cover. Amidst this agrarian setting lie swathes of grasslands, tall and swaying, dotted with herds of blackbuck antelope.

This is the vicinity of Velavadar Blackbuck National Park, home to wolves, blackbuck, nilgai, cranes, and thousands of birds and animals. It is also part of the historical “veedhis” that nourish the agro-pastoral villages of Saurashtra, by providing fodder for their livestock. Veedhis are a natural savannah ecosystem with predominant grass cover, interspersed with small trees and bushes.

We hear the croaking of huge flocks of demoiselle and common cranes, gathered in open fields. Starlings, parakeets, and larks throng the hedges and grasses, adding to the loud chatter with their chirpy calls. Amidst the morning chaos, harriers silently skim over the tips of the tall grass, employing their keen sense of sight to hunt for their favourite food ⁠— large grasshoppers.

Every year, hordes of harriers (and other bird species), migrate from the northern areas of Central Asia to the warmer climes of India, to spend the winter. Our own visits to Velavadar began in 2015, when we embarked on a long-term study of harrier migration. We arrive around September-October every year, and spend our days documenting harrier numbers (by counting birds on successive evenings at their resting place), observing them feast on grasshoppers and small birds, to understand their preferred prey. On some days, we examine their regurgitated food scraps, to get a closer look at what they consume.

Harriers are a species of hawk with slender bodies, grey and brown plumage, and large, strong wings that they use to fly from the extents of Central Asia to the marshes and veedhis of Saurashtra every year. Among this group of birds, is Montagu’s harrier, a small and wide-winged bird of prey with blue-grey plumage and dark black markings that distinguish it from the pale, white-grey plumage of the Pallid harrier.

Juvenile Montagu’s harriers have red-brown plumage, which we have seen on some birds in Velavadar. This means that the young birds have made the long winter passage only months after they were born, a journey that is arduous even for adult harriers. But that journey is necessary as there is little food to be had back home, in the upper reaches of the globe, covered in snow and frost, and devoid of prey.

Female Montagu’s harriers have predominantly brown plumage, with spotted underwings. Photos: Sambath Subbaiah

Though harriers are seen across a wide part of the Indian mainland, in central and peninsular India, and along the country’s western borders, but Velavadar is special. Between the months of September and November, abundant flocks of Montagu’s harriers gather here, creating a spectacle that cannot be witnessed anywhere else in India. (The only other region with similar gatherings is the Sahel region of Africa.)

In Velavadar, the harriers rest after their travels over the mountains and deserts of Central Asia, and eat from the abundance on offer at this lavish grassland sanctuary. Our records show that numbers are highest in September-October, but drop from several thousand to a few hundred as the months go by. By December, most members disperse into adjoining areas and other parts of the Indian subcontinent. A few hundred remain in Velavadar until March, when they must journey back home.

Our days at Velavadar begin early. Armed with binoculars and notepads we dash to the tops of watchtowers and buildings to document the directions in which the harriers fly in the morning. This is done to trace their probable feeding grounds, and the source of their food.

They emerge at dawn, from the dense grass of their resting place, and disperse in all directions with rapid wing beats, eager to grab their first insect meal of the day. The few that generally remain, skim over the grass to catch any hapless grasshoppers that lay hidden.

In the later part of the morning we walk trails in the grassland and cropland to meet the harriers during their forays to feed on insects and birds. The agrarian areas of the grasslands often have mounds, paths, and fence posts, which the harriers use as a perch between flight.

The Montagu’s harrier is adept at flying low over the grass, and deftly picking up any unsuspecting prey. But each species has its own signature move. The more agile Pallid harrier swoops over grass patches and hedges to catch smaller birds that are flushed out due to the raptor’s sudden appearance. The bulkier, and less agile marsh harriers fly over creeks and marshes to hunt for small birds, amphibians, and insects in the wetlands.

Popularly known as ringtails, female Montagu’s harriers are notoriously difficult to distinguish from hen and pallid harriers. Photo: Sambath Subbaiah

Harriers can be spotted during the morning hours, on trails near the boundary of Velavadar National Park, and often in farmland adjoining a village road. When the afternoon heat arrives, activity drops to a minimum, until the sun begins its descent in the skies in the early evening. Come dusk, and the harriers return from their foraging, congregating in sandbanks and open fields near their resting place in the grassland.

This is where we were parked one cloudy, blustery evening: on a sand bank near the remains of a structure that was damaged in the Bhuj earthquake of 2001. A sense of calm pervades, and suddenly, the harriers arrive.

One after the other, they descend on open trails and bare patches of sand banks, dotting the landscape with smudges of brown. A swirl of birds ascends together, flying around in small circles, and in less than a minute, there are hundreds of harriers careening over an area of a few hundred meters. They continue the performance for several minutes, and as the sun sets, their forms give way to dark silhouettes with a few bright plumes still visible. A few more minutes later, the birds finally plunge into the tall grass to seek a safe place for the night.

Observing them was a special experience, and will be a fond memory for years to come. It also made us ponder over what brings the harriers to Velavadar every year: Is it the unsprayed fields of desi cotton and jowar, or the matrix of veedhis that attract thousands of harriers, and tens of thousands of grasshoppers here? Is this landscape special, or is Velavadar simply the most productive location to stop along the harrier’s migration route? These are fascinating questions that may require tedious surveys over many years and seasons to answer.

Prashanth MB and Dr. T. Ganesh

Prashanth MB is a research associate and Dr. T. Ganesh is a senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.

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