Birds in Paradise

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During 1980s and 90s, Keoladeo has been my regular haunt. Foresters, Suraj                      Ziddi and Daulat Singh, my friends used to be there. It used to be so soothing to be in a wilderness, which was unique in all respect – World Heritage Site, National Park, birding heaven… It was so relaxing and cheerful those days – cycling, boating, preparing list of birds sighted, boozing…

It was 1989, when during a visit I met Sunayan Sharma, Assistant Conservator of Forest (ACF) and Research Officer. I noticed he has been keenly involved in bird watching and photography. He was head strong. He was dedicated to forest and wildlife. Soon, we struck acquaintance. With association during next few visits, we became family friends.

Sunayan has been an old school forester, dressing like a forester (wearing felt hat), talking like a forester (wildlife storytelling), and working like a forester (order is order), boozing like a forester (enjoy every bit). He has been bold and dedicated. He has been one, who would visit forest daily, without fail. He loved photography. I remember, once to photograph Sarus Cranes at nest, he got a hide built in the lake itself and used to spend hours cramped in small space. I am sure he had seen Keoladeo so closely, as few might have done.

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Keoladeo National Park

Later, he had second spell in 2006-08, which was much more challenging. First, he became the Director of the Park i.e. he was responsible for the entire show.  Secondly, over the years, protection and conservation had become more and more difficult. Thirdly, Keoladeo is a network of artificial lakes and need water to flow into them from Ajan Dam, which the farmers and their political bosses resented and managed to stop it altogether. Fourth, the Park, from the grasslands, swamps, and woodland was being encroached by Vilayati Babul (Prosopis juliflora) all over.

By 2006, the Park was completely devastated – dry lakes, weeds all over.  Keoladeo was on the verge of losing World Heritage status.

Sunayan is a man, who cannot sit back or take things lying down. He went all across to meet engineers, experts, funders and politicians to develop and initiate a scheme for bringing water to the Park. He ultimately succeeded and now water is not a major issue.

Taking advantage of his deep knowledge about the drainage system of Bharatpur and adjacent flood plains, he developed a scheme to tap the Govardhan drain, carrying lot of flood water from the plains of Bharatpur and adjacent areas of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Today, the canal built to bring this water to the Park is the lifeline of Keoladeo.

He developed a unique system of removing the Babul from the Park. This was in collaboration with the villagers living on the periphery of the Park. They were temporarily allotted small plots of forest to dig out the trees and wood was theirs. Only condition was that they have to remove it completely including the root stock. Initially, with lot of persuasion only 4 members of a family joined the operation but gradually the programme took off. In few months, it was adopted by all the 15 villages located on the periphery of the Park. This was win-win situation for both – Park as well as people. Park got back its grasslands, clear waters and original stands of sacred Kadamba trees in several places and people got wood. About 10 sq. km. area of the Park was recovered in about one and a half years. With the sale of harvested wood, hundreds of families could build houses, marry daughters and buy more resources.

This was not as simple as it sounds. First of all many of his colleagues discouraged him in doing so. They pointed out he is rubbing the law on wrong side. Secondly, Bharatpur is a typical town with complex political atmosphere. With great tact, he managed to take different leaders along. Furthermore, he maintained fairness and transparency in dealing with all villagers so that there was no antagonism or fights.

Sunayan retired in 2010. Nevertheless, he remains a forester to the core. He has written a book on Sariska sharing his first hand experiences and learning.  Sunayan and me visited Keoladeo in September 2017 and spent leisurely two nights. I suggested to him that he should share his unique experiences of Keolodeo also with larger audience i.e. he should write a book. We briefly discussed the outline.

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Bholu, Pushp & Sunayan (Left to right, during 2017 visit)

And here it is. ‘Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur – Birds in Paradise’ has been published recently by a leading book publisher, Niyogi Books in New Delhi. I am sure this would be certainly of interest for any bird watcher and would be an asset on   bookshelf.

Pushp

Subji Bazar in Making

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Bholu calls Sunayan Bhai. He informs, “There is not a drop of water in the pools! Openbills have arrived but have not started nest building. There is no sign of rain. If it does not rain in two-three days, they may leave.” All in all, he is suggesting no use visiting Bharatpur bird sanctuary.

Incidentally, any keen bird watcher, at least in India would know Bholu. He has spent his whole life watching birds in Bharatpur and is a knowledge bank on avian. Sunayan has been involved in research in one spell of his posting here in 1990s and in another spell as manager in 2000s.

Sunayan Bhai calls me to tell about the futility of visiting Bharatpur in absence of water. I check the weather forecast. There are indications of rains three days later than our planned dates. So we postpone the visit for three days.

I am mentally prepared and sure that we will meet the arrival of monsoon and the visit is going to be unique. Delhi to Bharatpur is short train journey of about 170 km, taking three hours. All signs are positive. It starts raining at Delhi railway station itself and throughout the journey, either it is overcast or raining and so it is, at Bharatpur station! What luck! Weather gods are with us.

Luckily, Sunayan Bhai has been driving from Jaipur and has timed the arrival at Bharatpur as my arrival time here. Thanks to Sunayan Bhai, has he been not at Station, it would have been very difficult to get transport to Ghana, as the forest of Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, i.e. Keoladeo Nation Park is called, as the whole city is water logged. It’s raining almost continuously.

It’s heavenly scene at Shanti Kutir, the Forest Rest House – peaceful, serene, tranquil…

So our decision turns out right. It has been raining heavily since last night. Some water has collected in pools, ponds and lakes in the Park. It’s lush green all around. Everything – herbs, shrubs, trees, animals, birds, people – all are happy and cheerful.

Next morning we go inside the Park. Incidentally, many wildlifers wouldn’t know that Bharatpur is important birding area in monsoon as well. People know this largely as migratory bird abode. Migratory birds come around autumn and leave before summer.

During monsoon, Keoladeo comes alive with formation of heronries in several parts of the Park. Locations are generally groups of scores of trees partially submerged, in middle of ponds and lakes. Its ‘n’ number of species of herons, egrets, cormorants, storks crowding in thousands of nests – some pure colonies and some mixed.

Right from nest building, mating, egg laying, chick emerging to grown babies ultimately flying away, it is all the time action packed with movement of the birds, foraging,  food collection, noise of chicks pressing parents for food, defending nest and chicks… One is never tired of watching something new happening all the time – never a dull moment.

Today is just the beginning of the heronry formation. And the first species to start is the Asian Openbill Stork (Anastomus oscitans). At two sites, we could see four trees taken up by more than 200-250 birds for nesting. In fact, some are repairing the old nests – discarding or adding twigs. Bholu tells me, Openbill is always the first one to start heronry and they prefer pure colonies.

This is first time I am watching Openbill closely. I realise two things – it’s a beautify bird with pure white body and black tail with reddish pink long legs but its bill (on which it is named) looks like a deformity! Reading literature makes it clear that this deformity like structure has evolved over a very long period of time because of the food habit of the bird – it eats snails and like stuff and the gap in centre of upper and lower mandible allows it to be able to crack the shells and enjoy the food!

All the time several birds are flying away, several are arriving with twigs for nest while some pairs are busy in love making and some are actually mating. Some are busy in aerial displays to impress or attract a mate. They seem to be happy lot. Some of these are wading through swallow waters of the pond for food. The wing span reveals its large bird. Number of nests on each tree is large. It is indeed crowded. But this number also provides security from predators and raiders.

The signal about monsoon arrival and beginning of nesting season has gone down faster than satellite phone. Already some Darter and Cormorant are exploring vacant trees adjacent to Openbill nest trees. Bholu tells, soon it would be like a subji bazar. For those who do not know, subji bazar i.e. vegetable market is known to be most unorganised, crowded and noisy place in India!

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