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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A Wild Housing Cluster in Urban Housing Cluster

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Raipur is bustling city, capital of Chhattisgarh State of India. So much so, to cope up with the population and infrastructure requirement, New Raipur city is being built in its vicinity.  In the middle of this old city, in the posh civil line locality, is located the ‘New Circuit House’ – a six story, huge building with rooms for visitors, conference halls, restaurant etc. This is comfortable. This is third time I am staying here, in last that many months. What amazes me most here is the canteen – there are more than 500 dishes listed on the menu including ones from all corners of India, particularly south and north, as well as Chinese and Continental! But, I least expect any other excitement in staying here.

But no. In my recent visit, I am located on top floor in room no 506. In fact, coincidentally, I have been located here all the times! Its natural with me, when I enter a hotel /rest house room, I prefer to open the balcony door /window to get some fresh air and to take stock of surroundings. Presently, as I open the balcony door I hear some noise of birds and see some egrets flying. As I reach the railing of the balcony and look around from this high ground, I tell myself with great pleasure, ‘Oh My God, in full and not OMG, a heronry!’ I am hugely excited. What a change, what a luck. I realise, I am going to spend good time at the rest house.

I forget plan to prepare for the meeting. Quickly I fix my camera, take out a binocular, keep a dairy and pen ready, pull out a chair and get all set to watch action.

Four medium size trees with spread out canopies are laden with nests. Most conspicuous nester is cattle egret and in largest number.  True to its name, I have seen cattle egret commonly, following cattle in village fields and herbivore e.g. deer, elephant, bison … in forest, collecting insects and other such food as they are stirred by the movement of animals.  It’s a white egret with a yellow bill and greyish-yellow legs. But here at the Circuit House Heronry, it has exotic plumage – orangish-golden plumes on the back, breast and crown. I notice some birds have bright red bill as well, while other continue to have yellow bill. I find all this dressing up is for pairing and breeding. So much so, that bill colour change happens for the short three-four days pairing period! Cattle egret looks still more beautiful with its buff feather all blowing delicately in the breeze – Adding a romantic feel to whole atmosphere in the heronry.

God is great. It has developed a natural mechanism for birds to look extra beautiful for the occasion, while men rather for that matter women, have to cough out huge sums and spend lot of time in boutiques to get them artificially painted though it’s not a guarantee that one would look beautiful.

There are around 200 odd nests.  Nests are built close to each other as are the houses in the locality. They are located at different levels in the tree like multi-level Circuit House.

Maximum number of nests are that of cattle egrets, followed by that of little egret. Little egret is not that little either. I recollect, it is so named as there are two larger (median and large) egrets found in India. Otherwise, in size and weight it is somewhat larger than cattle egret.

I can see a little egret nest quite clear and in the forefront of the tree down there, bang opposite the balcony. I can count three eggs in the nest when the egret rises from them probably to exercise legs. It very softly adjusts the positions and sides of the eggs with its beak so that they are evenly warmed by the touch of the body. What complexity the breeding is…

It’s monsoon time. The sky is overcast, drizzles now and again. Cool breeze blows. Branches of trees swing softly. So are the nests. It seems the tree as well as nest position are selected by design. Probably this prevents the predators e.g. cats etc to reach the nest.

The little egret has geared up the look of a bride – with flowing and flying feathers all around the body.  Technically, in the breeding season, the bird has ‘two long, pointed and very narrow plumes on the nape that form a crest. There are similar feathers on the breast, but with widely spread barbs. There are also several elongated scapular feathers that have long loose barbs.’ All said and done, it looks fairy. In the evening, I even see matting of little egret, right there on the nest. The male lands right on the female and all that…

There are about dozen, or may be more, pairs of night herons also nesting in these trees. They are generally in the top layer of the canopy. Night heron does not look like heron though – relatively stocky with shorter bill, legs, neck … Night heron, as you may know, has a black crown and back with the remainder of the body white or grey, red eyes, and short yellow legs. This bird has conspicuous two-three white long plumes emerging separately from back of the head. These plumes stand out – literally stand erect in greetings and courtship.

I notice, while one partner attends to the nest, the other one is either busy taking care of other cores or hangs around on nearby trees.

Oh My God, there are Ibises also. I notice one pair of Black-headed Ibis. Later, I notice, there are two more pairs behind, which are not clearly visible. The nest is on top most layer of one of the heronry trees. I may add that Ibis not an egret or heron but a wading bird. It is much larger bird and more so because of thick, long down curved bill.  It’s largely a black and white bird – white plumage, with some greyer areas on the wings & bald head, neck and legs are black. In the fading evening light, they are busy grooming…

Watching heronry absorbs my free mornings and evenings during the two days stay in Raipur, while the bird’s come true to Darwin’s theory of propagation of species with utmost dedication, love, leisure…

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(P.S. : I visit Raipur for 7-9 July 2016 for attending a meeting for development of Policy for Non Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) for the Forest Department of the Government of Chhattisgarh. Heronry at New Circuit House in Raipur is the clear indication of invasion by human beings in to the wildlife habitat. I am also told by my forester friend, Mr Manoj Misra, that this place used to be a wetland.)