A few screaming starlings drew our attention to a large brown bird hiding in a soggy mango grove of Baagchala - a quiet village in Kaliakoir. We sneaked into the grove and caught a glimpse of the chunky raptor. It was a fine-looking Crested Serpent Eagle.
The Crested Serpent Eagle, once a common sight at every village, has all but disappeared. These days, we get to see it once in a while only at the edges of some forests!
Yet, Baagchala is a rare village in our purlieu to host this eagle.
Baagchala, however, is not an everyday village; and the presence of the eagle there was not entirely unexplainable. The village sits near a Sal forest and has a lot of wood, shrubs and orchards between the houses. An eagle could breathe and even soar there.
The Crested Serpent Eagle loves to soar. With its broad and barred wings, it rides over the hot air rising from farmlands and the forest at noon. The sky is not where it hunts from; it stays aloft for the sheer pleasure of it and to show that it owns the territory down below.
For survival, every Crested Serpent Eagle needs a large territory to move about. It hunts snakes, lizards, frogs, mice and other small mammals that are not found in a small area day after day. The need for bigger territory rises as the snakes, lizards, frogs etc. vanish from villages.
Baagchala looked like a village where reptiles, rodents and amphibians could continue to live. Most homesteads were not fenced off but hemmed in rambling gardens, groves, bamboos and shrubs. The streets were lined with trees, not glitzy shops. We walked through the tranquil village without acquiring a rear appendage of onlookers.
The skyline of Baagchala was dominated by an enormous white fig or 'pakur' tree. We surprised a middle-aged monitor lizard under the tree. The lizard and the Crested Serpent Eagle happen to hunt the same prey and compete for the same resources in the villages.
Unlike the eagles, however, the monitor lizard is a scavenger and gladly takes decaying flesh. Even with that edge over eagles, the mighty lizard has not been doing well in our villages these days. Nevertheless, the eagle is worse off since it must hunt living creatures to eat.
To hunt, the Crested Serpent Eagle sits quietly on a high branch of a leafy tree and keeps an eye on the ground below for a snake, lizard, frog or mouse to show up. Unlike the ubiquitous kites, the eagle has not developed a taste for the domestic fowl of the village or the offal at a dump.
The Crested Serpent Eagle swoops down from its perch as soon as it spots a prey crawling, creeping or walking on the ground. It raises its huge fan-shaped crest as it strikes the prey with its powerful talons. It prefers to eat its meal on the ground unless threatened by large adversaries such as monitor lizards, men or dogs.
Interestingly, we saw nearly no domestic dogs in our short walk through Baagchala village. We and the lizard would probably be the only threat to the hungry eagle if it found a sizable snake crawling on the ground. We, therefore, decided to move on wishing the eagle 'bon appetit'.
Not many people of the village noticed the eagle nor knew its name. Although the word 'eagle' is a familiar Bangla word, no bird has been named an 'Eagle' in Bangladesh. The Crested Serpent Eagle is locally referred to as the 'Tila-baaz' which means 'spotted baza'.
The Bangla version of 'Encyclopedia of Flora and Fauna of Bangladesh' attempted to fix the incongruity in 2009. The Crested Serpent Eagle was named the 'Tila Naag-eagle' meaning 'spotted serpent eagle.' The bird is now known by that name or simply as 'Tila Eagle' in the birdwatching community.
At noon, we were startled to see a second eagle in Baagchala village. To find two Crested Serpent Eagles in one village of Bangladesh was a very rare experience, especially in the month of August, well outside their winter breeding season.
The Crested Serpent Eagles start courting in winter. Their courtship involves some musical whistling, singing in piercing notes and a lot of flying in circles. In his engaging poem titled 'The Dalliance of the Eagles', poet Walt Whitman neatly describes those flights in the following words:
Their separate diverse flight
She hers, he his, pursuing.
Our short winter comes to an end by the time the Crested Serpent Eagles make their large nest with dead branches high up on a tree. The female lays and incubates a single egg. The male guards the nest when the female goes hunting and helps feed the chick when the egg hatches.
The survival of the chick depends largely on the hunting success of its parents. Some 20 years ago, I had the good fortune to see a growing chick with its huge upright crest in a nest in the Adampur Reserve Forest and a few fledglings in Sundarban mangrove. I have not seen any chick or fledgling since.
The population of Crested Serpent Eagles has been declining steadily. We have lost the eagle in most of our villages. Baagchala is an exceptional village with two of those eagles, probably a breeding pair. We hope they thrive well in that quiet village yet to be overwhelmed with opulence and pomp.