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Montagu's Harrier (Juvenile) : Circus pygargus

Plate 1: Montagu's Harrier (Juvenile)
Circus pygargus
Flight, Plumage
Plate 2: Montagu's Harrier (Juvenile)
Circus pygargus
Flight, Underside of plumage
Plate 3: Montagu's Harrier (Juvenile)
Circus pygargus
Crouching over kill of a small bird
Plate 4: Montagu's Harrier (Juvenile)
Circus pygargus
Flight, Face profile and underparts
Rajasthan is a state I have been independently exploring since 1977, from different perspectives. Mostly done by road, main perspectives have been: tourism; observing natural scenery – I love the solitude and shifting scenes of the desert landscape; pilgrimage; to sample authentic cuisine cooked in rural/rustic kitchens; an easy weekend escape from Delhi’s humdrum along with my son; and of course watching wildlife and birding. Through these forays into the state I’ve frequently fallen into the trap of presuming that I’ve seen every inch of it only to be surprised by a new twist. One such inch was Tal Chappar, a wild patch of savanna grassland situated in Churu district.
It is a birder’s paradise – a couple of days spent there can yield a rich list of sightings of species, especially predators.
This is my first recorded sighting of Montagu’s Harrier. An active juvenile who showed me how Montagu’s Harriers hunt, bask, or simply sail the currents surveying their territory. Unfortunately, some of the interesting events happened at a very large distance from me, much beyond the lucid scope of my camera-lens system for pictures of any clarity. For instance, capture of prey and feeding upon it. Or for instance the perched pose. Maybe I’ll be luckier on another trip. That said, fact remains that I saw such events with my eyes (and aids such as binoculars), and that matters more I guess. At least I managed to photograph decent flying images of this bird and other raptors.
Montagu’s harrier:  Circus pygargus
IUCN Status: Least Concern
Pallid harrier and Hen harrier – the former more than the latter - offer challenges to correct identification of Montagu’s harrier, with regard to juveniles, immature adults and adults of both sexes. However, the females and juveniles of Pallid and Montagu’s harriers can be most confusing. At least for me.
It is a winter visitor to large parts of India.
To understand how I identified this bird as Montagu’s harrier (juvenile), it is necessary to broadly know parts of a wing, a diagram of which I shall use from Wikimedia Commons with proper attribution.

BirdWingFeatherSketch
Plate 5: Parts of bird's wing
1 = Primary remiges, 2 = Greater primary coverts, 3 = Alula, 4 = Secondary remiges, 5 = Greater secondary coverts, 6 = Median secondary coverts, 7 = Lesser secondary coverts, 8 = Tertiary remiges and 9 = Scapulares
By Muriel Gottrop (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Main Features:
1.      This bird was about 40-50 cms in size and a wingspan close to 100 cms.
2.    First off, the typical facial look (Plate 3 – apologies for poor quality of image), kind of owlish if you know what I mean, identifies this as a harrier of some sorts. We take it up from there and narrow down to the correct diagnosis. Which one is it? What sex? What age?
3.    Plate 4 shows the face in profile – definitely a harrier – and the rufous hue of the undercarriage points us to a juvenile of the species. Combined with the overall colour and pattern, we know this is a first-year juvenile. At this stage, it is difficult to tell the sexes.
4.    We now wait for the bird to climb higher so we can look at the patterns on the underside besides the silhouette in flight. (Plate 2)
5.     As it soars, one can note the darker upper part (back) of the body (Plate 1) and combined with rufous undercarriage, definitely a juvenile.
6.    Let’s refer to the wing patterns (Plate 5) above: Primary feathers that form the ‘hand’ have indistinctly barred bases, unbarred fingers and dark trailing edges. (Plate 2) . This is typical of Montagu’s harrier.
7.     Turning to facial features (Plate 2 & Plate 4): more white around the eye in the case of Montagu’s harrier; deeper white supercilium; broader white cheek extending upto the loreal area in comparison with Pallid harrier; smaller dark ear coverts; only a faint spotted and streaked half-collar around neck in comparison to clear white unspotted round collar in case of Pallid harrier; dark neck sides with streaks instead of solid colour.
8.    Underparts are rufous coloured and show streaks on either side of breast extending up to flank area. (Plate 2 & Plate 4)
9.    Evenly banded tail on the underside (Plate 2) instead of plain underside of tail of Pallid harrier.
 
Glad I spotted this bird and added it to my list. 
Any suggestions and discussions are welcome.
 
Photographed at Taal Chappar, Distt. Churu, Rajasthan, India on 3.10.2014
Camera used: Nikon D5100 DSLR with Tamron 150-600mm Lens.
 
 
 

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