Crested serpent eagle ( Spilornis cheela )

Crested serpent eagle in india, Crested serpent eagle in Bengal, Crested serpent eagle in Assam, Crested serpent eagle in Kziaranga

The Crested serpent eagle  also known as the Tilaj Baj in Bengali  is a medium-sized raptor that is found in forested habitats across tropical Asia. Within its widespread range across the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia and East Asia, there are considerable variations and some authorities prefer to treat several of its 21 subspecies as completely separate species.

Crested serpent eagle in india, Crested serpent eagle in Bengal, Crested serpent eagle in Assam, Crested serpent eagle in Kziaranga
Crested serpent eagle roosting on a dead tree by the road in Kaziranga

Photographing the bird, characteristics, distribution & breeding and the necessary details:

Photographing the bird :-

Though the Crested serpent eagle is a diurnal and non-migratory raptor, they would travel over short distances, establishing territories during breeding season. They are usually found foraging over thick forests often close to grasslands . Any raptor has a keen eyesight and can detect any movement from great distances. So keeping that in mind it’s best to avoid as less movement as possible while looking for them. They are not very shy and would allow one to approach them to a certain distance . I would suggest to take photographs for each step one gets closer . One can also find them often soaring high in the sky and can be easily distinguished  by their tail and underside of the flight feathers which are marked with black and broad white bars. A direct stare of the CSE to the person while taking a photograph of this raptor often provides a thrill in the frame.


Characteristics :-

The Crested serpent eagle is a medium sized raptor measuring upto 50-75 cm in length.The wingspan is 100 to 170 cm. Considering the large number of subspecies of these eagles, there is a wide variation in size and appearance.Generally, Crested Serpent Eagles are dark from above with a lighter brown underside. They have white spots and streaks on their wing coverts and scapulars and the underside of their flight feathers is black with broad white bands. The nape of neck and the crown are black, while the crest is brown and barred with white. The breast is barred or a solid color, and the belly, thighs, and crissum are rufous with dark barring and white spots. The tail is black with a white tip and thick white bar. The wings are short and broad. When the crest is raised in alarm, it frames the entire face.


Distribution , Breeding and other details :-

The Crested serpent eagle is found throughout tropical Asia and many of it’s 21 populations have been considered as a subspecies. Some of them are , S. c. perplexus in Ryukyu Islands of Japan. S. c. cheela is distributed in Pakistan, North India, Nepal and Bangladesh. S. c. melanotis is distributed in peninsular India, Gujarat and Gangetic Plain. S. c. spilogaster is distributed in Sri Lanka. S. c. burmanicus is distributed in Myanmar, Southern China and Thailand. S. c. davisoni is distributed in Andaman Islands of India, etc

The breeding season of the Crested serpent eagle begins in late winter when they start courting and establishing territories. The eggs are laid in early summer. The nest is a large platform built high on a tree. Both birds in a pair build the nest but the female alone incubates but the male Crested serpent eagle also guards the eggs when the female forages. The nests are lined with green leaves collected from nearby and are placed facing down on the nest floor. Interestingly often when an egg is lost, a replacement is laid  two – seven weeks later.

The diet of the Crested serpent eagle, as their name indicates, is made up of snakes. However, they also catch lizards, frogs, eels , crabs and small birds.

My experience and suggestions : –

The crested serpent eagle is considered as least concern according to IUCN and thus can be found mostly everywhere near any forested habitat. I first saw one in 2011 when I went for trekking in Sandakphu, West Bengal. Later photographed one in Sikkim in 2014 and then encountered few in kaziranga  in April 2017. The encounters in Kaziranga  eventually became more memorable and also I could get ample amount of time to notice their behavior.

Crested serpent eagle in india, Crested serpent eagle in Bengal, Crested serpent eagle in Assam, Crested serpent eagle in Kziaranga
Crested serpent eagle staring at the setting sun as the golden light is falling on it, in Kaziranga

Crested serpent eagles are not shy and if they don’t feel any disturbance allows a person to get close enough with proper caution. Identifying them is very easy , one can easily recognize them by their bare yellow face and large head with long feathers on the back of the head , also in flight they can be identified from the broad black and white tail and underwing bars .

In kaziranga finding one was not very difficult , in every safari we saw 3- 4 Crested serpent eagles throughout. One gave a us a lot of time which was unexpected before it flew off . The photographed also seemed very appealing to me due to its habitat, which blended with the eagle. Later on a different safari one was spotted on the side of the road, roosting on a dead tree.


Few things to keep in mind before looking for this amazing raptor :-

Try to learn its call so it becomes easy to identify and also to locate the raptor.

It has a very distinctive call , Kluee-wip-wip.

Any raptor has a very keen eyesight so approaching with caution is always recommended if one wants to observe the majestic raptor from a close distance.

If the raptors raises its crest and start giving alarm calls then try to leave it undisturbed ASAP.


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