Dear Feathered Community,

The other day, I caught myself risking my life to take a rather close-up photo of parakeets. Terrified of birds that are larger than sparrows, my uncharacteristic move of getting close to photograph these birds surprised me. Clearly, something had changed during my visit to the Bharatpur Bird sanctuary in December 2017.

A weekend getaway from Delhi, this visit to Agra turned out to be anything but about the Taj Mahal. At the end of Day 1 at Agra, having walked around in awe of the amalgamation of Mughal and Indian architecture, my partner reminded me – “We start our day at 6.30 in the morning tomorrow. We must get there when the birds are out and when there are less people”.

“Sure, I’ll wait outside”, I mumbled reluctantly in response to his enthusiasm.

Early next morning, we were on our way on his bike. Just about five minutes into the ride, the cold December wind gripped us tight, freezing our bones and souls. An hour later when we got off at the Sanctuary parking lot, our limbs felt like blocks of iron that we had to painfully drag. As I desperately rotated my feet, bent my knees and rubbed my palms together to bring my limbs back into life, the parking lot attendant pointed out a tree to me. Against the rising sun I saw about 30 tiny and slender Sunbirds zooming in and out of the tree. While I tried to get a good glimpse of their slender bodies and brilliant plumage, the sun thawed my body and the sight warmed my antagonized heart.

I had been assured that there would be no pigeons that would fly into me at the sanctuary, and that the birds here would have better things to do than pay attention to a human. That sounded convincing enough for me to hop into a cycle rickshaw with the rickshaw puller also doubling up as our guide. He had lived all his life at the village next to the sanctuary, and had practically grown up in the sanctuary, he said. He would prove his prowess over the next four hours.

As the rickshaw rolled into the sanctuary, the dusty lane led us into a vast expanse of land that extended to as far as the eyes could see. A UNESCO-listed National Park, it is a mosaic of dry grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands, and rightfully claims to be a Bird Paradise. This man-made and man-managed reserve was created about 250 years ago and was then used primarily as a duck shooting preserve for the Maharajas of Bharatpur and the British viceroys of India. In 1982 it was designated as a national park, owing to the rich diversity of flora and fauna that the area had eventually provided a safe haven for.  We came across Nilgais, foxes, hares and spotted-deer often, as we explored the national park. Also called the Keoladeo ‘Ghana’ National Park (translating to ‘dense’ in Hindi), there was ample shade and new flora to learn about.

img-20171218-wa0007_01.jpg

Salvadora Persica/Miswak/Toothbrush plants flank the beginning of the path that take you deep into the Keoladeo National Park (also known as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary). The plants are rather inconspicuous, but their tiny fruits are a joy. We saw these fruits in bright red, pearl-white and this delicate pink. More delightful than the colours is the mini burst of flavour that’s packed into each of these tiny berries

To my dismay, one of the first group of birds that our guide spotted for us was the Yellow Footed Green Pigeon.  “Pigeons”, I said and looked at my partner, feeling betrayed. He promised to protect me with all his might and we hopped off the rickshaw to have a look. Those birds sitting on the top branches looked nothing like our city pigeons, and nor were they intrusive like their urban cousins. Their silver beaks glistened in the early morning sun, the green of their body matched the leaves of the tree and their yellow feet did complete justice to their name. As I got back into the rickshaw, I could foresee this cycle rickshaw ride through a bird sanctuary, shattering most of my inhibitions and prejudices against the feathered community.

YFGP
The Yellow footed Green Pigeons – the only pigeons that I’ve ever tried hard to look at!
DSC_1006White Cheeked Bulbul
This pair of White-cheeked Bulbul got cozy with each other and didn’t mind our peering eyes. Our guide would later tell us that this was a rare sight and a lucky sign. A believer of signs, I soon started liking these birds a lot!

Our guide kept pointing out birds he’d spot, give us a brief description, and we’d hop off to get a closer look and photograph the birds. With every few meters of progressing into the park, my enthusiasm and interest grew, and I spent more time looking at the birds. I tried to ignore this new-found courage as much as I could, lest it feel watched and abandon me at a bird paradise!

Getting to know about birds that had traveled for months, across oceans and time zones, I could only marvel anew, at this beautiful phenomenon of nature, where generations after generations, birds have flown to the same spot of land each year. Having been a compulsive Animal Planet watcher as a child, I found myself revisiting those same feelings of being awestruck at these common facts of wildlife. I was probably shedding off some of the inhibitions that the older me had gathered and nurtured.

The long necks sticking out of their bodies makes them look like snakes, contributing to their names – ‘Snake Birds’. One can watch them for long as they’d dive into water and then emerge at a completely different part of the pond, with a fish between their beaks that they would swiftly toss up in the air before catching it and gulping it down.

Soon I found myself telling the guide very earnestly about how half a day was just not enough for a place like this and that, next time I’d stay closer to the national park and would spend at least a weekend here. As we both nodded wisely and spoke about birds and the ecosystem that was so fragile, I couldn’t help but notice my partner silently reveling in this moment of victory. It was on the very first day that we spoke, that he had offered to bring me here – an offer I had flatly refused, with much confidence in order to mask my fear of birds. A few months later, he had not only been successful in bringing me to a bird paradise, but was also witnessing a conversion.

I now walked confidently on paths that had feathers all over them and where the possibilities of bumping into a bird were higher than bumping into a human! At one point our guide pointed at a patch on a wetland where a variety of birds sat basking under the sun. These birds had flown from Kashmir, Leh, Iran, Russia, Afghanistan, making the gathering look like an international conference for peace. I crouched behind shrubs for a closer look while hoping that they would come a little closer so that I could take a better picture, or just get a better look at them.

Conference
The Conference

The Kingfishers never quite stopped posing

Sarus
Standing tall at 1.8 meters, the Indian Sarus is the tallest among the flying lot, and is the iconic resident bird at the sanctuary.  Apparently, they’re usually found in pairs. If you do see a single one, its partner won’t be far, said our guide.

The stars of the bird sanctuary however, were nowhere to be seen. The Painted storks are considered to be the pride of the bird sanctuary, which is touted as one of the largest colonies for these birds in Asia. Each year the cacophony created by these birds and their young ones fill up the hearts of the guides with pride as they show them off. This year however, the birds had abandoned their nests in the middle of the breeding season and had flown away, leaving behind their eggs as easy prey. There wasn’t a single stork in sight, and our guide told us about the disappointment and heartbreak this had caused to the locals. It indicated a drop in the number of visitors, further leading to a slump in incomes. Due to low rainfall and lack of immediate action, conditions weren’t conducive enough for the birds, and although water from the neighboring rivers and other sources was now being directed to fill up the marshlands, it was too late. The birds had abandoned their nests and eggs already. I could only imagine the energy of the place being multiple notches higher with those birds around. It wasn’t difficult to see the inherent inter-linkages that existed between nature and humans – about how we impact each other and yet how as humans we fail often at maintaining this equilibrium and ecosystem.

As we were nearing the end of the park, our guide let out a gasp and pointed ahead – perched upon a branch, sat a single Painted Stork. As I zoomed in using the camera lens, I saw its colors – white, pink, yellow, black. Someone must have indeed painted it. It sat there alone, no other stork within sight.

Painted Stork
The single Painted Stork told a story of leaving home reluctantly.

The guide was baffled and when he had no logical explanation for this stork to be there, it was credited to my good fortune. Although I did get to see the Painted Stork, I knew I was far from witnessing it in all its glory, creating happy chaos like big families do when they are together, raising their kids and fixing meals. They’ll be back next year, our guide said keeping faith. I do believe him and made a promise of showing up again the next year to see the Painted Storks. I now find myself trying to find out what led to the Painted Storks leaving their nests and their breeding ground, where they’d have gone, and whether they’ll come back. There was a similar incident in 2015 when the authorities had allowed a lot of noisy construction for the comfort of tourists, which sadly compelled the birds to leave. The birds however did come back the next year. But the truth is, there does exist a water management issue that begs to be resolved. Considered by many as one of the richest bird areas in the world, the wetland boasts of being home to over 350 species of birds, floral species and a large number of vertebrates and invertebrates.  If this ecosystem were to get disrupted due to a lack of long-term solutions, it would be a great loss of natural and literal wealth.

Something had changed for me during this visit to the bird sanctuary. I had agreed to put myself in a situation that makes me the most uncomfortable, and yet I was leaving only after making a promise to return. Watching the birds in their natural habitat, living their lives uninterrupted had given me a new perspective. I had survived and as always Mother Nature had emerged victorious.  I often catch myself at bookstores now, flipping through books about this community which until recently was a perceived enemy. What is travel after all, if it does not make you venture out of your comfort zone? While birds might not be everyone’s pet peeve, something else might be. When we challenge ourselves to step out of our comfort zones, we do ourselves a favour. We experience things, see people and faces that we would have never seen otherwise; all of this while also discovering a side of ourselves that we didn’t know much about.

The city pigeon however, remains my arch enemy. I haven’t made my peace with it yet, and they don’t make it easy for me either. They hop around my balcony, flutter violently when I try to shoo them off, and the sight of a single feather rolling around the floor of my room  or trying to take a low flight continues to scare the living daylights out of me.

I do believe however, that the existence of this write-up about the feathered community, and most of it being positive, is a testament to my mind having broadened a tiny bit because I traveled beyond my comfort zone.

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s