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!

Pushp

The Other Keoladeo

 

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It’s wonderful weather. The rain is hanging in the air. It has already rained some time back. It’s densely overcast. Though it is 5 in the afternoon but seems like 7. The greenery is all washed and seem happy and radiant. So romantic.

Sunayan Bhai and I are at Shanti Kutir, the good old Forest Rest House of Keoladeo National Park. The rest house is appropriately named, Shanti means peace/silence, Kutir means modest abode.  We come down from our suite on first floor. Lawns are spread in front, and on both sides. In the central lawn behind a tree, I notice a large brown animal – huge like a horse. Oh! It’s a massive Sambar stag visiting Shanti Kutir. It crosses from central to left lawn. Here is located a pollution monitoring lab of Mathura Petroleum Refinery to study pollution levels at the Park. And can you believe, the Sambar is watching the lab to see, if all is fine!  The animal just ignores us and goes about browsing on low hanging leaves. We also, quietly leave.

This is the other, lesser known side of Keoladeo, famous bird sanctuary and World Heritage Site (UNESCO). We meet the director of the Park, Dr Ajit Uchoi, whose office is next door, just adjacent to FRH complex. He tells us, “there is a population of about 15-16 Sambars in the Park.”

Next morning, we go to visit the Park. There is electric golf cart to take us around. First thing we see is a Go, the Monitor Lizard. It is rushing ahead on the side of the road. Its gait is clumsy. It’s intention to keep to road is clear, we increase cart speed, Go starts running. We get down the cart and walk behind it quietly. We get some pictures but all from behind. We try to run ahead, but it leaves the road and enters into road side bushes. We wait for five minutes and as expected it comes out on the road in leisurely gait. We do not bother it anymore.

A little later, we find a mongoose similarly walking along the road side. But mongoose gait is much graceful. This seems to be on hunt mission. As it walks, it keeps glancing around in the bushes. When we approach too close, it would enter bushes to come out 3-4 minutes later, 10-15 metre ahead, and continue on its mission.

OMG! I see larger number of cattle in the Park after several decades. In late 70s, the park used to be full of it. It was banned in early 80s. Sunayan Bhai explains, “These animals are from adjacent villages and would go away as soon as the water starts filling in lakes.” Several large, hefty bulls are roaming the roads virtually like bullies – Maybe feral animals.

In the afternoon, we start at 5. There is still lot of light. We see one Sambar busy feeding in the lake. It is not bothered by our presence. Its goes on enjoying meal. It’s after months there is water in the lake and fresh vegetation has come alive.

Soon, we see a Nilgai feeding in another lake. I ask the driver to stop for a picture. Sunayan feels ‘no point wasting time on a Nilgai – such a common animal’. I feel, ‘let me take a shot in the particular habitat.’ But our stopping proves useful. We notice commotion at the edge of the water. It’s a massive turtle, one and half feet long carapace is partially visible. Driver tells us, “Probably there are two, one above the other. It’s matting time!”

We reach Keoladeo temple. Laze around and stroll. Sunayan Bhai asks, “Would you like to see bats?” Incidentally, nobody would know better than Sunayan Bhai. He has been director of Keoladeo, and done some landmark work in management of weed and water because of which the Park is alive now. We go to a date palm grove, 200 meter away. Yes, I can see several fruit bats flying in and out of date palms. I can also see, several of them in the trees. Somehow, the situation does not turn to be photogenic – poor light, partially hidden animals, confusing background…We only keep wondering – what fate do bats have – condemned to hand upside down, sleep through the day and be active at night, and in compensation they have body structure which allows them to fly in spite of being a mammal! Bat is the only mammal which can fly. The other so called flying animals can only glide through the air for limited distance.

While we are returning, the Range Officer, Lalit, meets us. Sunayan Bhai gets off the cart and stops to discuss one finer management issue. I keep sitting in the cart. The road is straight. I notice half a km ahead, about a dozen animals hurry across the road from left to right. Can they be Nilgai? The driver feels ‘Sambar’ but I am not convinced.  Soon we try to catch up with these animals. Sunayan tries to watch them through binocular. They have moved some distance. Though the light is fading but he says, “They are neither Nilgai nor Sambar. They are in all probability, Hog Deer.” ‘Hog Deer’, that’s interesting. I am inclined to agree going by the size of the animal I have noticed. Also, Ajit has told us about the presence of good number of Hog Deer in the Park. Incidentally, Hog Deer has disappeared from many of its ranges due to habitat changes. Thus, the  sighting is exciting.

Sunayan tells me, “Black Buck used to be found in large area of the Park but is now locally extinct.” Black Buck is luckily found commonly in many other areas.

As we are returning, the light is fading. And the last surprise turns out to be Cheetal. It is not the animal. We see it so commonly. We have seen it in Keoladeo as well many times. What has taken me by surprise is the number! The herd is spread continuously for about a km. The flush of fresh green grass has attacked animals from the whole area. Immediate thought comes of sighting of large herds in Corbett and Ranthambhore. This has surpassed all. May be around 400-500 animals!

Amazing, Keoladeo has so much to offer beside birds. Indeed, a vibrant landscape.

Pushp

Babul of Ghana

I find bright yellow flowers – small woolly balls – spread all over I go – dust tracks, on side of roads, bushes … I am in Ghana with a forester friend, Sunayan Sharma. As we drive through the Park to a have a macro view, I notice trees are decked with bunches of yellow balls. It is clear that this tree species is typical of Ghana. Incidentally, Ghana is known by other names also, Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and Keoladeo National Park (Rajasthan). I like the name Ghana as that’s the tradition name of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Talking of name, common name of the tree I am talking about is Babul. From literature, I find ‘the species is Acacia nilotica and it is indigenous to the Indian Sub-continent as also in Tropical Africa, Burma, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and in West and East Sudan. In India, natural babul forests are generally found in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Karnataka.’ All said and done, it is commoner than common trees of India.

Frankly, it does not carry any impressive image in literature. I recollect an old say, quoting my mother who used to say, “Boya paid babul ka to aam kahan say khaye.” That is, ‘if you have sown a babul tree (which is all over thorny) than how can you expect to get mango.’

You may wonder, ‘Then, why I am talking about this tree? What is so great about it?’ That’s valid questions but during my two days in Ghana, I learn the importance of the species and it really amazes me. Yes, that is why, I decide to look at it closely.

We take a walk behind Shanti Kutir, the Forest Rest House in middle of Ghana. The area which used to be a complex of wetlands is now dry. There are no birds – not literally but in the context that it used to swarm with thousands of birds of more than 100 species. It is now grassland-cum-woodland. I notice Babul is conspicuously present all over. I further notice, most of the trees along the dust track are not standing. The stem could not bear the load and most of the trees are lying down of one or two stout branches. This might have been for decades but it has not impacted the growth of the trees in any way! A similarity that comes to my mind is that instead of standing, a man is inclined on a bed sideways, with thick pillow tucked in between an arm and body so that the upper part the body is inclined at an angle to bed.

It’s leisurely walk and no serious birding. Soon it’s twilight. We find a bench facing a patch of grassland. We are tired and it feels better to sit down and remove camera bag weight from shoulder. I have some fixed up stuff in my bag and we chill, as kids say. I am sure we are prefect picture for a postcard of two old, as well as, old friends enjoying a carefree life.  After a while I notice, the forest beyond the grassland is really thick. I ask, “Sunayan Bhai, what’s that.” He replies, “Our same old Babul.” I could not believe babul can stand so tall and thick as well. Mostly, I have noticed, the tree is scattered and ruggedly shaped or rather shapeless.

Sunayan has been the director of Ghana about a decade ago. He knows the forest closely. While discussing the character and usefulness of the species, I find it amazing. In nutshell, ‘It grows in varied soil conditions. It flourishes even in alkaline soils. Even the existence of saline water in the sub-soil is not injurious. It’s almost evergreen. It is a domestic tree and villagers like to plant it around their houses, wells, compounds and in the agricultural fields. Almost every part of the tree finds some use. The tree is highly versatile.’ Furthermore, this tree is largely used in Ghana by several species of birds – egrets, herons, storks… – to develop mass nesting areas, called heronry. OMG! It’s all in one.

Next morning, we visit the core of the core of Ghana – Sapan Mori. It is pronounced as Saapan Mori. Saapan means ‘of Snake’ and Mori means a drain. Here these drains have sluice gates which have been installed in whole area to regulate water in wetland complex. At Sapan Mori too there is one such sluice gate. Probably, here, there is more concentration of water snakes in the channel!

On both sides of the narrow dust track, there is mix of wetlands, marshes, grasslands, swamps. I recollect in good old days, about three and a half decade ago, we used to see few Siberian Cranes here which, alas, is no more so. Now, we do see a pair of Sarus Crane, our domestic crane, which is also our tallest bird. Sarus too is not common these days.

Coming to the subject, there are trees scattered in swamps and wetlands and you will be surprised to know that these too are mostly Babul. They can tolerate partial submergence for some part of the year and get along. The good part is, they are very important for birds – nesting, perching and roosting. Sunayan Bhai adds “inclined trees at the edge of the water are the nesting places for birds like White Breasted Water Hen, Dabchick…”

This can go on but I will like to conclude, Babul, the commoner, is certainly special for Ghana. I am sure, you will agree.

Pushp