First, a short introduction (by YP):
Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax is rather poorly known in the WP. It is widespread in Africa and S Asia, but now with the North African population probably extirpated, the only breeding population is perhaps in the southern Arabian Peninsula, though I have managed to find no recent evidence of this. Ssp. belisarius breeds across the Sahel Region and sub-Saharan Africa. It is generally sedentary, but some individuals disperse, occasionally to long distances. It seems to occur as a rare visitor to S Arabia, Egypt, Israel and perhaps also S Morocco. It is unclear whether WP occurrences involve also birds from the Asian subspecies vindhiana.
A recent individual that was found in Israel a couple of weeks ago sparked an interesting ID exercise. Barak Granit, one of Israel’s top birders, was involved in the identification process, and wrote a nice identification article that first appeared on the Israeli Birding Portal. It is reproduced here:
Tawny Eagle Identification by Barak Granit
On July 14th, Olga Chagina posted on her Facebook page a series of images of an Aquila sp. she took south of Kibbutz Ze’elim in the northwestern Negev (not far from the famous Urim powerline), seeking for ID Help. Initial responses called for Steppe Eagle while others suggested Lesser Spotted. Itai Shanni was the first to call for Tawny Eagle – a species with only five previous national records, four of which in the same general area. Shortly after Itai’s opinion appeared on FB, I supported Itai’s identification as Tawny Eagle and pointed out some diagnostic identification features. These are Olga’s first photos:
Later on, Dick Forsman approved the identification. This is not an ‘Identification article’ proper – identification features of Tawny Eagle are available in literature. I review here the status of Tawny Eagle in Israel, and point out the key features that separated this individual from similar species.
Status in Israel
Tawny Eagle was first recorded in Israel on 1st November 1992 at Urim (Shirihai, Harris and Williams). Subsequent records came from the same locality: one on 22nd November 1996 (Aldersons), and one on 21st December 1997. Information about these records are in Hadoram Shirihai’s book Bird of Israel (1996) and in volume 21(1) of Sandgrouse, dedicated to fifty new species Hadoram had found in Israel.
Between January 1999 and March 2000 a Tawny Eagle was seen occasionally around Urim-Zeelim, by different birders including James Smith, Trevor Ellery, Eyal Shochat and others. On December 17th, 2000 while conducting a wintering raptor survey I finally locked on that bird. During the following weeks we were amazed to discover that it had built a huge nest (!) on one of the Eucalyptus trees by Urim’s gas station. Moreover, soon after a (probable) female Eastern Imperial Eagle showed some interest in becoming a partner, and it was observed perched by the nest and it even collected some nesting material.
Eventually, no breeding occurred but that bird enabled a close look at the species’ key features. It is possible that this bird was the same bird seen in 1996 and 1997 or perhaps even the same bird from 1992 that ranged in the area for almost a decade. We’ll never know.
13 years later, in early August 2013, Ezra Hadad photographed a Tawny Eagle near Bet-Kama in the northern Negev, some 20 km east of Urim. This bird was seen again by several birders over next few days.
Key features seen on Olga’s photos
Tawny eagle is a highly variable species. In Israel we don’t have records of the easy creamy-buff morph or the more difficult dark morph. All the birds recorded involved tawny-brown individuals. In this respect confusion might happen with Steppe Eagle, especially sub-adult birds which lack already the broad white greater coverts and with Lesser Spotted Eagle. Here I give the main ID pointers that could be seen in the first set of photos. Hopefully this will refine the ‘Search Image’ for local and visiting birders in Israel.
- Ageing the bird – the bird is in active moult, growing outer primaries while the outermost primary being paler and pointed, thus unreplaced yet, indicating a 3rd calendar bird (hatched in 2014). Actually correct ageing was enough to eliminate other species of the same age: Steppe Eagle still shows a broad white line on the greater coverts at this age; and Lesser Spotted still shows some whitish undertail coverts.
- Structure: Large headed with somewhat shortish wings compared with the long wings of Steppe or the more well-proportioned Lesser Spotted. When perched, tail looks rather short as well and the whole ‘weight’ of the bird is moved forward. The Bill is large compared to Lesser Spotted but the gape-line is only medium-long reaching the centre of the Eye, not as long as in Steppe.
In flight the wings are typically pressed forward and although it was not clear if that feature was a result of a photo that caught it during active wingbeats, the effect could be noted.
- Partially black greater coverts – contrary to Lesser Spotted and Steppe, the black GC are more solid and prominent. Actually the prominent black GC are similar to that of fulvescens Greater Spotted Eagle which in general, at least the intermediate morph can look quite similar!
- Barring on flight feathers – every Aquila Eagle has a unique barring pattern which enables diagnostic identification (see in Dick Forsman’s new raptor ID book). In Lesser Spotted, the dark barring extends along all the feathers to the trailing edge. In sub-adult Steppe (from 4th year plumage) the barring is well developed and first adult feathers show a broad black trailing edge. On Olga’s photos it is clear that the barring doesn’t reach the trailing edge, thus covers only inner part of the feather (as in juvenile and immature Great Spotted), but also that the bars are faint, unlike all other species.
- Almost entirely plain tail feathers – unlike in any of the similar species. This is a very important feature.
- Paler ‘wedges’ on inner primaries – that was actually a good example of how a good feature was hard to detect in a too-close photo. Later on, when flight photos from greater distance became available, this feature was easily noted: somewhat resembling juvenile / immature Eastern Imperial Eagle though fainter, Tawny Eagle has paler inner primaries that create pale ‘wedges’. On the first set of photos this pattern was difficult to see.
- General plumage tones – the plain ground colour of the belly, trousers (lacking any spots typical in both Spotted Eagle species) and undertail coverts are unique for Tawny Eagle. Personally when seeing the first set of photos I hesitated on this feature the most, since it was hard to tell if it was the real colour or a result of light-effect of low evening sun. However, the entirely tawny and plain undertail coverts convinced me that the tones seen in the photos were close to reality.
Many of these features were confirmed later by Dick Forsman, who also added the elongated shape of the nostril as in Steppe and unlike ‘spotted’ eagles that have a round nostril.
Itai Shanni also pointed out the contrast from above between the paler median coverts to the much darker greater coverts.
This individual is still present in the same area, and became very popular during the first two weeks of its stay among Israel birders and photographers.
Many thanks to the photographers Olga, Ezra, Eldad, Avi and Meir who contributed their superb photos to this article.