Archive for April, 2012

Koel (Indian nightingale)

One of the bounties of waking up early in the Indian summer – literally being up with the birds! – is that one gets to spot some of the shyest birds which retreat into the foliage of trees as the morning ripens.  I am speaking here of the Asian Koel, northern India’s most loved summer songster (called India’s nightingale).   

 Every year, depending on slight variations in the Indian lunar calendar, either April 12, 13 or 14 is celebrated as new year’s day by the people of several regions in the country (all the southern states, several eastern and north eastern states, some northern states).  The Hindu new year celebrates the prosperity that accompanies the final harvest before the sun rises higher in the sky and the sustained heat causes agricultural operations to go into hibernation. 

 Almost to the calendar date this year,  I heard an unfamiliar – or, rather, forgotten – birdcall, as I got out of bed in the morning wishing myself a happy new year.  It took me a few seconds to realize that it was the Koel.    The Koel’s lilting call is unmistakably associated with the summer in the northern Indian plains – the onset of the dry stifling heat, the gradual browning of the soil, followed by the longing of the parched earth for life-giving rains… As the Koel waits out the summer heat, its musical notes get more persistent,  intense and haunting, almost as if its heart (and throat) would break were it to have to wait any longer for the rains.  This song has become a metaphor in Indian classical and folk poetry and music for all that is beautiful, yet heartbreaking, about love and longing.  

 A little later that same morning, I once again heard the Koel’s clear notes coming to me, this time from just outside my balcony.  I crept up to the door. There, almost within arm’s reach, perched on the highest branch of the bare Karanji tree, fully visible and totally unaware that it was being watched, sat the  singer.  I was able to see its glistening jet-black feathers, its bright red glowing eyes, its large body and long tail, and its throat muscles vibrating with every trill.  Such a rare and amazing sight.   Nearly a week later – yesterday – I saw it flash past as it flew to the safety of the densely-leaved Sehthooth tree in the distance, to continue its song from there.  In the last few days the  summer has advanced and has brought leaves onto most of the trees in the garden; I know that clear sightings will become ever rarer, because the Koel’s natural instinct is to hide itself.

 Feeling grateful that nature in my neck of the woods seems to be working to time, I was brought up short by a news item – “Too late, too soon. Nature getting its timing wrong” – in the day’s newspaper.   It informed me that within the framework of what  we laypersons might see, in bald terms, as timed biological events or rhythms, there are in fact minute changes  taking place that have potentially major repurcussions.   The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2007 report (www.ipcc.com) documented the progressively earlier arrival of spring, by about 2.3 to 5.2 days per decade,  in the last 30 years.   These tiny changes in seasonal timing…”of first and last leaves on gingko trees in Japan, butterfly emergence in the U.K., bird migrations in Australia, the first leaves and flowers of lilacs in North America…”, among others – all part of this trend –  are resulting in the disappearance of  those species whose lives are interlinked with birds/flowers that are changing their behaviour, but  are not keeping pace with these changes….  

 Perhaps my northern European friends who have been impatiently awaiting the confirmed onset of spring, and chafing at its delay this year due to repeated reappearance of snow, ought to be grateful that flowers and birds might be forced to turn up just that wee little bit  later than they have been doing these past few years… And, in the process, keep pace with each other’s needs…? And thus extend their own species survival…?

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Despite being currently located a mere three-and-a-half-hour drive away from India’s most famous bird sanctuary, it has taken me nearly three years to actually make the trip there.  The  Keoladeo National Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur in eastern Rajasthan is actually strategically located on the route to Agra and the Taj Mahal and can easily be combined with a touristy visit to the Taj.  The Taj – a monumental ode to maternal mortality by a king who impregnated his young wife thirteen times, resulting in her premature death during childbirth – is celebrated as the acme of perfection in human craftsmanship frozen in marble.  The bird sanctuary, virtually next door, blows your mind away for another reason altogether.  To visit there – as, indeed, to visit any park that protects diverse species of wildlife from extinction due to human greed  –  is to enter a living world of harmony, natural beauty and perfection, and hope and aspiration for a better planet.

Created 250 years ago and named after an ancient Shiva (Keoladeo)  temple within its precincts,  the Keoladeo National Park(27°10’N, 77°31’E),  began its life as a hunting ground for the maharajas of Bharatpur.   It later came to be recognised by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, an important habitat for “in-site conservation of biological diversity…  a habitat of rare and endangered species…a wetland of international importance for migratory waterfowl…  the wintering ground for the rare Siberian Crane, and habitat for large numbers of resident nesting birds ” (UNESCO).

Sadly, Siberian cranes which had been regular winter visitors for at least two centuries, have stopped coming to Bharatpur for over 10 years now due to a complex of factors, of which an important one is the bombing of Aghanistan that followed 9/11 (Afghanistan was a crucial halting spot on their route, before they took to the skies again for the final eight week stretch of the 2500 mile journey from Siberia to Bharatpur).  But one can sight hundreds of varieties of exotic and stunningly beautiful migratory birds and waterfowl, in addition to several hundred locally resident bird species, with the odd nilgai, sambhar, spotted deer, mongoose and porcupine, wandering around for added interest.

Spread over approximately 29 square kilometers, the park is the only spot with dense vegetation and trees in an area characterized by sparse vegetation.  The principal vegetation types are tropical dry deciduous forests intermixed with dry grasslands (savannas) of tall species of grass.   Part of the park is a fresh water swamp that gets flooded during the monsoon.  The wetlands constitute one third of the park habitat, with varying microhabitats consisting of trees, mounds, dykes and open water, with or without submerged or emergent plants. It is here that the most exotic birds gravitate to.  For the most part of the year effective wetland is only 10 sq. km., and the rest of the area remains dry.

You can, therefore, imagine how important good monsoons are for the park and its resident and migrant visitors, and how gravely this ecosystem can get affected in a year of weak rains.  As happened in 2010, when the rains failed and most of the park ran dry.  Very few migratory birds chose to spend their winter here that year,  and the government had to bring in water through tankers to ensure that the existing bird population survived.

We made a visit to the park early this March;  it was still the peak season (November to March) for viewing  migratory birds .  Our visit coincided with the spring festival of Holi, and all of the park’s rickshaw-pullers lined up at the gate  had painted their faces with stripes in Holi colours!  The ones we hired invited us to climb on, but not before painting our faces too (all visitors to the park whom we encountered through the day looked like funky tigers in a pantomime show!).  Then off we went into the green depths.

At seven in the morning, we were the day’s first visitors and we felt the promise of a leisurely and cool day ahead. But the occasion of Holi also meant that the fifteen-odd villages surrounding the park all had their music systems on at full blast, and the raucous notes of Bollywood numbers followed us even after we had lost sight of the park’s gates.   The bird sanctuary, sadly, has no buffer zone and, therefore, nothing to protect the birds from insensitive pollution of various kinds by humans living in the surrounding settlements.

Not that the human custodians of the park behaved very much better.  We saw a ‘senior’ park warden whizzing around on his motorbike deep within the park, where there was nothing else to break the silence of the nesting water birds.  A superior smirk came on his face when our rickshaw-pullers bowed to him – evidence that his importance was being acknowledged in the presence of outsiders.  Horrified, we asked the rickshaw pullers who he was, and how noisy mechanised vehicles were being permitted in the deep undergrowth.  They just hung their heads,  after sharing the information regarding his so-called authority.  Flaunting the power to misuse one’s office is the rule of the road in India, in both small and big places.  And small people take their cues from those above them…. a power game that goes on all the way to the ‘highest’ in the land.

Our rickshaw-pullers – at the bottom of the hierarchical heap of humans working in the park – turned out to be soft-spoken, courteous and venerable old men who were hugely knowledgeable about the birds in the park, having pedalled birdwatchers through the area for all of their adult lives.  This makes them a great resource, prompting ornithologists to dignify them with the title of ‘Barefoot Naturalists”.

White-throated kingfisher

Our ‘barefoot naturalists’ energetically proceeded to make sure that our enthusiasm  –  dampened by the dreadful noise from loudspeakers following us – stayed afloat.  They stopped our little convoy every few yards to point out birds hidden in the trees.  A number of these were common Indian birds familiar to us around the farmlands where we currently live  – green bee-eaters, red-vented bulbuls, parakeets, brahminy mynas, shrikes, bushchats and rockchats,  treepies, cougals, red collared and laughing doves, lapwings, prinias, babblers, peacocks, robins, hoopoes and kingfishers, sunbirds, egrets, etc.   Naturally, we had to travel quite a bit into the interior – and its envelope of silence –  to begin to see the really rare birds.

As we started to leave the crashing loudspeaker din behind and move forward through the tree-dense regions of the park, we began to get thrilling ring-side views of  hornbills flapping around, exquisite yellow-footed green pigeons cleaning their feathers,  glowing pheasants making low swoops in the undergrowth, unbelievably – to urban eyes accustomed to the smaller house crow – huge jungle crows with wide wing spans, blue bee-eaters (larger than the more common green bee-eaters), black shouldered kites …

Yellow-footed green pigeon

In shallow swamps, amazingly long-slender-necked purple herons stood stock-still, probably waiting for unsuspecting prey to show up, but certainly affording us plenty of time for admiration.

Purple heron

Soon we were pedaling  into more extensive wetlands.  There, on either side of the path, sitting or swimming in the water, perched on dykes or mounds, or sitting silently on low overhanging trees, a visual feast awaited us.   Colonies of teals, terns, ducks, mallards, and pintails of many kinds (many of them from China, we were told) teemed in the waters.  On distant banks, we were able to spot slow-moving ibises, including a few great big-headed ibises, scouring the shallow waters for food.  Lone darters, stunningly patterned snake birds with long coiled necks,  and little and (large) great cormorants, stood silently on rocks or short branches looking down at the water, not moving a muscle as they waited to spot prey.  On one mound we saw a whole busy colony of  demoiselle cranes in classic one-legged posture.  While on another long dyke a colony of painted storks were going about doing… well, what painted storks generally do, I guess.  Spoonbills, black necked cranes, and great egrets (large) were other birds that gifted us one of our most soul uplifting mornings of the new year.

Painted stork

We left the park by the end of the day, knowing that we would return for a longer visit later in the year when the birds visit again for the winter.  What a tragedy that such a large number and diversity of fabulous looking birds – several of them huge in size – have to crowd within such a tiny wetland space, after having flown thousands of miles to escape the winter in their northern homes.  How long before drastic climate changes (which are becoming all too frequent) in the form of periodically failed rains; and human assaults in the form of willful incursions, insensitive noise and chronic negligence, shrink this habitat even further?

If even occasional sightings of exquisitely beautiful fellow creatures such as these can act as soul-tonics for us and make us feel privileged to be sharing the planet with them,  one cannot help wondering what must be  the lives and passions of dedicated naturalists and wildlife photographers who spend most of their waking hours in the habitats and presence of these creatures?  At the very least we can salute them for doing us the service of bringing their images to us in print, celluloid and on the internet (like the few included here with gratitude; I was too busy feeling excited, binoculars glued to my eyes, to take pictures! ).  And for stirring in us a desire to make trips into nature whenever we can.

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