The Grey-headed Fish Eagle, which lives all year in Bangladesh, is the most common of our four fish eagles and found all over the country. (Our other three fish-eating raptors are the Pallas’s Fish Eagle, the Osprey and the White-bellied Sea Eagle; they arrive here during winter and are more localized.)
It is a distinctive bird, not easy to confuse with others and identified by three main features. Its legs are covered in white feathers, its body is brown and its head is a pale grey. About the size of our cheels, it reaches thirty inches and weighs up to three kilograms. In flight, you can see its white tail rounded out by a black band. Its beak is small for an eagle, but its talons make up for that.
I first saw the Grey-headed Fish Eagle years ago in Baikka Beel Wildlife Sanctuary, but after that first look, I had trouble finding it again. About a year ago, I was in Hail Haor when I spotted a largish bird sitting at the edge of a fishpond. At first I thought it was a Pallas’s Fish Eagle but the white leg feathers puzzled me. As I looked it flew up and perched on a branch perhaps twenty feet above the water.
I observed it while it scanned the water. A few minutes later it made its move. It dived down and straightened out just above the water, legs stretched out in front, talons open. For a split second it flew horizontally like this. Then it effortlessly dipped its outstretched claws into the water, pulling out a Tilapia. Holding the fish with its talons, it flew off to a tree far away, presumably to eat in privacy.
The entire operation took perhaps a second or two. If I had glanced away, I would have missed it.
Some weeks later I saw the same bird perched on the same tree but this time it did not dive. Instead, it stared at me and I noticed a curious behaviour. It lowered its head while retracting its neck, so it looked like the head was looking out from its upper chest, as if it was shrugging.
More recently I saw the several Grey-headed Fish Eagles in Muhuri Lake, Feni. Here, a dam built on the river Muhuri before it flows into the ocean has created a lake where birds congregate in winter. Several fish ponds dot the area. The eagles were perched on trees around one such pond, keeping a sharp eye on the water, often flying in to trees close to water’s edge for a better look.
It was also here that I got a closer look at the four formidable talons which emerge from the thick skin of its toes. Three face forward and the largest one, called the hallux, faces the rear. They are curved with sharp points. The eagle uses all talons for catching prey. Once caught, the front talons hold the kill in place while the rear talon is used like a dagger to thrust into the prey, and, together with the beak, to dismember it.
Indeed, the Grey-headed Fish Eagle is a fine example of the avian treasures of Bangladesh.
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