“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed”– Neil Armstrong.
Khawr Taqah used to be one of the best places in Oman to see the scarce Small Pratincole in winter, but the monsoon that devastated the south of the country in summer 2018 destroyed the coastal lagoon and nowadays the area consists mainly in a pretty extensive steppe-land and some weird pools surrounded by reedbed in what (I suppose) was meant to be a park. It’s worth accepting it: Taqah has lost some of its appeal, but maybe not its potential to produce interesting and memorable observations. This place currently provides an extensive coastal heathland, a globally endangered habitat always rich in foraging raptors. As soon as we arrived, we immediately detected three big eagles surrounded by House Crows, obviously scavenging on a carcase. Two of them were immature Eastern Imperial, but the other wasn’t as obvious. Although we initially identified it as a Greater Spotted Eagle based on likeliness, we soon realised it showed some very obvious hybrid features.
Despite I don’t have much first-hand experience with Spotted Eagles, especially Greater, a big percentage of the birds seen in the Iberian Peninsula (around 10/year) show at least some of these features, so as a Rarities Committee member I’ve always been compelled to dig in a subject that I had never felt particularly attracted to. Thankfully, Lontkowski & Maciorovski Dutch Birding paper on the matter, published back in 2010, is pretty complete and soon became a must-read to understand the variation within the 2 species and to assess birds like these (by Javier Elorriaga) and like this (in Spanish; by Àlex Ollé & Guillermo Rodríguez). Since you don’t quite often get such great photo opportunities with these hybrids, I thought it could be interesting to share here the pictures I took, accompanied by merely descriptive captions.
As usually happens with hybrids, in terms of plumage appearance, anything within GSE and LSE seems to be possible. Most birds show a plumage closer to one of the two species, whereas others show a puzzling combination of features. This variation among hybrids has typically been linked to its generation and indeed there seems to be a tendency towards that. However, hybridisation always entails a component of unpredictability so detailed studies of such individuals can help filling some gaps. In this case, the bird shows some features that are meant to be exclusive of LSE (especially nape patch) whereas others are obviously GSE-like. To understand how far can a hybrid get in every feature is key in order to avoid considering diagnostic some features that are not.
PS: A bit of publicity here for the new book that just got published by good friend Àlex Ollé (together with Fran Trabalon). Raptors of Europe. Both are great birders and, needless to say, raptor lovers. Spanish only yet but still worth it for every serious European (and worldwide) raptor-watcher. Go and buy it!