Species

The Soaring Raptor of the Changthang Skies

The handsome upland buzzard is Ladakh’s resident breeder that nests on sharp, sheer ledges of steep rocky cliffs

By Subhashini Krishnan

When you live in cities of northern India for too long, you start assuming that any flying raptor is the ubiquitous black kite. However, a five-month sojourn to the trans-Himalayan landscape changed many of my perceptions. From December to April, 2019, I was staying in Hanle, a village in the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, Ladakh, that also hosts India’s highest astronomical observatory. Hanle is a high altitude grassland-wetland ecosystem known for the summer presence of black-necked cranes. I was there for my Master’s dissertation research, studying the impact of free-ranging dogs on the wildlife in the region. Most of the winter days have ample sunlight making it bearable to move through the cold winds. However, few snowy days barred me from driving my car to do my fieldwork and hence I hiked through the snow in search of exciting wildlife sightings. I often saw handsome birds of prey such as the golden eagle, common kestrel, and the bearded vulture circling around Hanle’s crisp blue skies. But the one bird responsible for changing my view about the common black kite was also the most common in Hanle — the large, striking upland buzzard.

Found along the Himalayan belt, the upland buzzard (Buteo hemilasius), is a pale brown bird of prey. At 71 cm length from head to tail it is the largest of all buzzards. It is larger in size and has longer wings and tail than the Himalayan Buzzard. Juveniles and a few adults exhibit a dark brown shade. The buzzards of the Himalayan region cause inevitable confusion among birdwatchers due to the various brown morphs of this raptor. Luckily in my field site, the only resident breeding species was the upland buzzard. Himalayan buzzards and long-legged buzzard were passage migrants.

An upland buzzard looks for prey from a vantage point on the sheer hilly terrain of Ladakh. It mostly lives around large expansive open spaces. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee </br> The upland buzzard is largely a brown raptor, until it soars and reveals white patches on its wings. Cover Photo: Surya Ramachandran

An upland buzzard looks for prey from a vantage point on the sheer hilly terrain of Ladakh. It mostly lives around large expansive open spaces. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee
The upland buzzard is largely a brown raptor, until it soars and reveals white patches on its wings. Cover Photo: Surya Ramachandran

I was living in Hanle with a local family, and soon the word that I was interested in wildlife spread around. On a snowy, bitter-cold day, my field guide and assistant, led me to the astronomical observatory, located on a hill at the heart of the village. “You’ll be interested in this,” he promised. As we walked down the hill, he showed me two buzzard nests, and informed me of the third one at the other side of the hill.

The upland buzzard breeds in Tibet, Ladakh and northern Kashmir where it builds nests on overhanging ledges of high cliffs. Soon, on leisure days, despite multiple warnings against unadvised climbing, it became a routine to scale cliffs to look for wolf/fox dens, and raptor nests. Buzzard nests are huge and shabby made of broken, dry twigs of varied sizes. The inside of the nest appeared softer with its excreta and few of its own feathers. I was surprised to see that the middle of the nest was a lot flatter than I had expected it to be. However, it pained me to see an occasional plastic wrapper or pieces of Buddhist prayer flags lining the nest. One of the first nests I saw had a piece of sanitary napkin lining its edges. Hanle is increasingly becoming a favourite tourist destination, with poor garbage disposal system. Trash inevitable finds its way into bird nests.

The upland buzzard is a solitary bird, and pairs up only during breeding season when they go through a courtship and nesting period. Photo: Wang LiQiang/Shutterstock

Over the course of time I identified seven upland buzzard nests that were in use. One of these nests and its resident buzzard, became my muse. The buzzard spent most of the sunny winter mornings on the ground, right above the burrow networks of voles, the rodents that it preys on. The buzzard sat with such piety above them that it reminded me of meditating monks. The occasional head tilt and short jumps indicated that the buzzard was tracking its prey scuttling around the burrow openings. Of the five times I observed the raptor hunt, only once I saw it successfully catching a vole, a small stocky rodent, after nearly four minutes of trying. Its strong talons held on to it, as its sharp beak butchered the prey to pieces.

By the end of March, when temperatures began to rise, I saw the buzzard courting with its partner. The pair floated together in the gushing wind, flying above one another and occasionally pecking each other by the neck. Initially, I thought it was a fight between two buzzard individuals. However, after incessant pecking, the pair returned to the nest to perch beside each other. The courtship was also confirmed by few locals who reported that buzzards dance in the winds of March, and then raise chicks in the upcoming summer. Over the course of early April, I noted pairs in two other nests. Soon as the temperatures rose the upland buzzards were joined by a pair of Himalayan buzzards and a single long-legged buzzard. The gushing winds of Hanle had started to smell of the oncoming summer.

Subhashini Krishnan

is interested in canid ecology and evolution. Always ready to answer the call of the wild, her perfect day involves a good cup of coffee followed by tracking paw prints and howls in the wilderness.

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