Saturday, January 17, 2004

A sanctuary at your doorstep
Baljit Singh

Five kilometres from Panchkula, the Barwala bird sanctuary plays host to not only a large variety of birds and butterflies but also some mammals. So far 83 species of birds have been sighted at the sanctuary, writes Baljit Singh

Sanctuary residents: Purple sunbirds
Sanctuary residents: Purple sunbirds 

THE Barwala bird sanctuary, covering 250 hectares, is a tiny, compact home to birds. In a daylong visit, you can get to know every nook and corner of this shelter most comfortably. A few visits later, you can be reasonably sure in which month of the year and at what time of the day which species of birds, animals and butterflies you may expect to encounter where. However, this sense of anticipation is no less exciting than walking into the unknown.

The sanctuary is 5 km from Panchkula on the road to Morni. As Barwala happens to lie where the Shivaliks meet the plains, it plays host to a vast variety of birds, butterflies and some mammals.

Barwala has several bare and near-vertical mud cliffs scattered in the midst of thick vegetation. The largest is almost in the centre of the sanctuary. Such mud cliffs are favoured by several bird species as nesting sites. In May, the small green bee eaters cover the face of this cliff like a swarm of honeybees. This is the peak of their breeding season and the birds maintain a constant shuttle, carrying food to the nestlings.

So far 83 species of birds (resident, passage, vagrants and local migrants) have been sighted at the sanctuary. Over a period of time and with the help of ornithologists, this list may well swell to 200 species. Of these, the birds which are sighted rarely and therefore add to the excitement are the ones that journey through Barwala. The rarest is the wallcreeper which has been sighted only twice so far in the winter months. In its home in the Himalayas, its colour merges with that of the rock cliffs and it is difficult to detect it. But against the brownish-yellow backdrop of mud cliffs here, the wallcreeper’s grey and scarlet plumage stands out conspicuously. The Himalayan whistling thrush gives away its presence mostly by its call — a sharp clipped k-r-e-e-e, often repeated at short intervals.

There are places where you see big trees rooted to the wall of a crag, in sheer defiance of gravity. It was on one such tree that a Eurasian Sparrow Hawk had chosen to perch itself, to survey far and wide for prey. Lower down, a copse of eucalyptus trees was abuzz with the raucous chatter of treepies. The rufous treepie is a resident bird but the blue magpie descends here in the winter. Because of the thick foliage and their hyper-activity, I was unable to determine whether they were the yellow-billed or the orange-billed ones. Perhaps, there was a grey treepie also.

A goral (mountain goat) sighted at Barwala
A goral (mountain goat) sighted at Barwala

As expected, the largest presence of birds is where the mid-height trees merge with bushes; more than 80 per cent of the known species of birds of the Barwala sanctuary are found here. Rare to encounter are the Great Himalayan barbet, black bulbul, black-crested bunting, verditer flycatcher, golden oriole and the common iora. Those that delight your heart always and every time are the red-vented bulbul, Oriental white eye, great tit, scarlet minivet, purple sunbird, brown-headed barbet, laughing dove, magpie robin and black drongo. The floor of the sanctuary, littered with leaf-mould, is the exclusive domain of the jungle babblers; they are forever turning over the soil and leaves in search of food and never tire of their compulsive nattering.

One encounter which left me confused was with the crimson sunbird. This happened last year in the first week of June, the peak of his nesting season when he should have been up in the Himalayas. His plumage has a dramatic combination of three primary colours; most of the body is crimson-scarlet, the crown and its slender long tail is metallic bottle-green and the rump (small back) is bright yellow!

When the summer is at its hottest and driest, the sanctuary reverberates with the almost incessant chorus of the calls of the lesser hawk-cuckoo (brain-fever bird), Indian cuckoo and koel. When the rains are in sight, the pied-crested cuckoo joins the medley. Once the rains are in full swing, the Indian pitta arrives here to add to the colour and melody.

There is one game trail in the sanctuary which from the floor of the valley ascends to the top of the ridge and after a long traverse over the entire crest line again descends, reaching the valley. The crest provides a view of the entire sanctuary and the Shivalik range as far and wide as the eyes can reach out. My first walk on the trail on November 23, last year, was very memorable. There were tracks (hoofmarks) of a big sambhar doe (mother) with a fawn (baby) in tow, several heaps of the droppings of the barking deer, spent quills of a porcupine and feathered remains of a male peacock (all suggestive of a meal made, possibly, by a leopard). Thrice I came across gorals (mountain goats), five in all, who displayed their remarkable agility to glissade from a vertical cliff. A Bonneli’s eagle put up a magnificent aerial display as it dived down to its prey. And quite unpredictably, every now and then a variety of butterflies (grass yellow, great orange tip, cabbage white, peacock pansy, common mormon and others unknown to me) add to the charms of this walk.