The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 17, 2002

A temporary home for migratory birds
Baljit Singh

A purple swamphen
A purple swamphen

MANY species of water-birds arrive at the Sukhna, beginning October each year, all the way from the Siberian tundra and Central Asia. Some fly short distances between stops each day. Others like the Great Knot, a Sandpiper, fly non-stop for three to four days, covering an incredible 6,500 km to their winter destination in North Australia. Almost all water-birds that come to India take the central migration flyway over the contiguous mountain crescent, among the highest in the world, formed by the Pamirs, the Hindu-Kush, the Kun Lun, the Karakorams and the great Himalayas.

This annual to and fro migration of water-birds about which little was known till the middle of the 20th century has at last been reasonably understood and their flyways fairly chartered. Nevertheless the mystique and the romance of migration remains undiminished.

So when water birds touch down at the Sukhna lake, it is time to renew our tryst with these birds. At the peak of migration in mid-January this year there were a rich species diversity of migrants, the grebes, geese, shelducks, marsh ducks, diving ducks, rails, coots, stilts and sandpipers along with resident species, the grebes, cormorants, darters, herons, egrets, plovers, harriers and terns. Considering the size and location of Sukhna, the number of species that come here are impressive.


A greylag goose

The most exciting is usually the least expected encounter. There was no mistaking that the three birds I saw swimming leisurely were grebes; their bodies low in the water and necks slender and long. The white on the face, neck, throat and breast, against the smooth black crown with a suggestion of a crest and the pointed, long, flesh-pink beak clearly showed that the birds were great crested grebes in their non-breeding plumage. The only other time I saw them was on their breeding ground, the Pangong Tso (lake) at a height of about 15,000 ft. in Ladakh. In the breeding plumage the crest though untidy and scattered is very prominent as is the cinnamon-coloured broad collar in the middle of the neck, offset by black feathers lower down. Whether these three were from their breeding area in Ladakh or Tibet or Central Asia, we shall never know. A while later and some distance away I spotted seven little grebes, so diminutive in comparison that to the uninitiated they could pass off as the young of the great crested grebe! You can find little grebe almost in any waterbody anywhere in the country, but the great crested grebe is a rare sight in the Sukhna waters.

The most prominent presence was naturally of the marsh and diving ducks. The most conspicuous were those which catch the eye because of their arresting tonal contrasts. The tufted duck make for the sharpest contrast between black with white. In drakes the flanks sparkle white against body glossy of black with a purple wash. The iris of their eyes at times glints like polished gold. The flanks in the females are mottled light brown and while the rest of the body is soft dark brown. Both sexes supported a delicate feather tuft descending from the crown and hanging clear off the back of the neck. Mallards were in plenty. What catches the eye the most is again the drake; metallic green glossy head and neck offset brilliantly by a bright yellow beak and a white collar below the neck. What was prized most by fashion designers for the hats in the days gone past were the two black central tail-feathers of the drake which end in a tight upwards curl. Mallards alone in the world of ducks can take off vertically. Keeping in tight clusters and close to the bullrushes along with Eastern fringe of Sukhna were Indiaís endemic spot-billed ducks. As the name suggests, its bill is ebony black with a chrome yellow tip and it has a bold, big, flaming red patch on the forehead. Again, in the old days, the colourful upper mandible was a sought-after trophy. From mixed flocks of ducks so far, I now came to an exclusive congregation of shovelers. The shovelers are carrion eaters. Nevertheless they have a strong visual appeal. The head of the drake has the green of the Mallardís but is less glossy and lacks translucence. Its neck and breast are white but the flanks and belly are a rich chestnut brown. Perhaps the most commanding presence among ducks on the Sukhna lake are the pintails. There is a certain elegance and dignity in the manner the pintail drakes hold their slender necks erect as a counterpoise to their long streamlined bodies ending in a black tail with two long, rigid and pointed feathers. The colours of the drake are sober; chocolate brown head and hindneck, white foreneck and breast, flanks and back grey with brown wash and a few black feathers among the wings. The common pochard bobbed on the water ripples in large numbers. The drakes looked impressive with dark rich reddish-brown head and neck breast and tail coal black, light grey back and wings and white flanks and belly.

Brahminy ducks and barheaded geese enjoy a swim
Brahminy ducks and barheaded geese enjoy a swim

The placid scene was suddenly jolted into a frenzied whirring of hundreds of wing-beats when almost the entire assembly of ducks took to air. There were several marsh harriers circling casually but once the avian predator descended below the acceptable threshold of safety, the ducks chose not to take any chances. As always, the coots provided the alarm to all unwary birds by their noisy take off. They are just as ungainly in touch down, which is accompanied by with much splashing of water. They, too, have a large presence at the Sukhna. Just the, I noticed a brilliant flash of peacock blue among the aquatic vegetation in the shallows. There was just one pair of the purple swamphen/moorhen, the long bright red legs, red beak and forehead and purplish blue of the birds body on full display. Not so spectacular and a bit smaller were the five common moorhen. Though they look a drab blackish brown in the water but if you notice them in flight you cannot miss the pleasing pastel green of their dangling legs, the bright red of the thighs, the beak and the ring of the same colour around the eyes.

The herons and egrets are not known to be eaten by harries, yet they, too, had reacted to the alarm because of a reflex action genetically common to animal kingdom. I may have missed them, the four grey herons, three large egrets and seven little egrets, but for the alarm. The birds who totally ignored the scramble to wings were the visitors from Outer Mangolia, the greylag geese. They numbered just 13 at the Sukhna, though they arrive in India by the hundreds. You cannot miss them, they are among the largest of birds on these waters, with pink beaks and legs all too clearly on display. Selfishly, I hoped something would scare them, for I longed to hear their powerful wing-beat, and their vibrant honking "aahung-ung-ung"called out in chorus as they gain height. May be another time.

There are several large and many smaller mud-bars and mud-deposits projecting above the shallow waters towards the southern end of the lake. These are the favourite sunning, preening and resting spots for most species. Conspicuous by their somnolescent posture were more than 44 ruddy shelducks or brahminy. They breed in Sikkim and Ladakh but their main breeding areas are in Central Asia. Seen from a distance the overall colour of the brahminy is like the bright rust-yellow robes of a Buddhist monk; a mere coincidence of course that one of their large breeding areas is Lake Manasarovar at the foot of Mt Kailas in Tibet!

On a small mud pile in one of the shallows were several sandpipers. They are a very big family of over 80 species and identification is trying. Thankfully my task was made easier as more than 100 birds alighted on the same little space. The beak, the overall appearance, the variable colours of legs (yellow, grey, orange) all pointed to the ruff. The clincling proof of identity came from three birds whose necks and breasts were white, as is the case with many a ruff in the non-breeding phase. They come from North Asia. A compatriot of the ruff, the dainty black-winged stilts feeding close by in very large congregations, were conspicuous by their long pink legs, black back and wings but otherwise completely white.

The great cormorants were among more active feeders. It is a very big bird, nearly the size of the white-backed vulture. It is jet black except for the yellow throat. For reason unknown, the bird likes to dry its wings every now and then. So on the largest mud-flat I counted 14 of them and all with their wings stretched taut, facing the sun! However, it fell to the lot of the Indian River Tern to remind me that the birdsí grace and freedom lie chiefly in the flight. There were five of them, legs crimson red, long and pointed orange-yellow, bills, black crown, back and wings smooth grey, moving across my vision like wraiths every now and then. A moment of great excitement was sighting of one common shelduck. They are rare visitors from Central Asia and their numbers are on the decline. They are big as the brahminy but vastly different in looks. They have a bright, corral red beak and knob, glossy bottle green head and neck, and on a white body a broad chestnut band around the breast and back, a thinner black stripe down the centre of the belly and legs rich orange.

But the one bird at the Sukhna which deserve compassion and special care is the Indian Darter. Commonly called the snake bird because of its manner of swimming with the entire body submerged and only the thin neck held aloft, much like the water snake. It is a beautiful, slim bird with silver streaks on its brownish black wings and looks spectacular when it spreads out its wings to sun and dry. Of all the birds at the Sukhna, migratory and resident, the Indian Darter alone is in the category of globally-threatened or near-threatened species. The pink-headed duck endemic to India was last seen around 1943. All that remains of this species are seven preserved skins in two museums in the world and one stuffed pair in a museum at Patna. May the Indian Darter never face a similar fate.

Let us join hands and prevent the further destruction/reclamation of our wetlands and waterbodies which alone are home to all water-bird species. Wetlands are active agents for recharging water-tables and aquifers. At the Sukhna lake, more than 95 per cent of water-birds favour the southern end of the Sukhna towards the water regulators. Why? Different waterbird species eat a range of food types from fish, crustacea, mud-dwelling invertebrates to water plants and tiny plankton. Barring the fish, the rest of this aquatic menu is best cultivated in shallow waters at the southern end of Sukhna and so naturally that is where water-birds congregate. Let us, therefore, pause ad question the dredging strategy of the UT Administration. Might not the UT Administrator consult well-meaning and qualified individuals and organisations to evolve fresh blue print for desilting which would both preserve Le Carbousierís dream of the lake and also help make it a more attractive water-body for migrant water-birds.

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