Raptor Friday: Crested Serpent Eagle

What’s the fuss about the Serpent Eagle’s crest? At first glance, it isn’t even there. But wait and watch…
I first ran into the Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) in BR Hills on my first-ever trip with Beej, Sahastra and Sunita, and I wondered why those who named this bird thought it was crested. Why not Bulge-eyed Serpent Eagle? To me, the Changeable Hawk-eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus) — earlier known by its well-deserved name of Crested Hawk-Eagle — ought to have benefited from any title that contained “crest”.
Majestic in flight

This dark-plumaged forest eagle had no visible crest though even without it, the bird was captivating: the huge yellow eyes sported a don’t-mess-with-me stare, with a proud hooked beak and heft to match. And the ease with which it zipped in and out through the forest trees! Juveniles, I understand, are paler to the extent of being almost white, and have a white and black pattern on the back of the head. When in flight, the underside of the flight feathers and tail feathers show distinct black-and-white bands.

It took me a few sightings to realize the name was not in vain. A few times I saw the hint of a crest when wind ruffled the head feathers, and I was lucky to capture one such moment from a distance.
Any doubts about the crest?

I have spotted Crested Serpent Eagles increasingly in the suburbs of Mysore after my first sightings, which were in dense forests. Once I saw one in a mango grove, taking off from a tree upon seeing us. Another time, a juvenile was being mobbed by crows near Infosys Mysore campus. Essentially, though, they are forest birds, keeping themselves to mid-canopy on the lookout for snakes, as their name suggests.
A juvenile mobbed by crows on the outskirts of Mysore

A raptor is handsome in a deadly way and the Crested Serpent Eagle is no exception. Handsome to us and deadly to snakes, and thankfully, pretty common in reasonably forested localities. Hope it stays that way…
Text and photos: Sandeep Somasekharan
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