Gold and feathers

Sunset on Bhigwan’s lake was a quiet time. Fishermen and farmers were on the way home from work. Herdsmen had brought their cattle to water for a last time in the day. Distant sounds of traffic had quietened. We’d heard calls of birds all day. That was completely gone as the light turned to gold. This was a good time for bird photography on the water. An Indian pond heron (Ardeola grayii) stopped looking for fish as soon as I’d clicked the featured photo and stalked to the hollow of the trunk and laid its head on its shoulder, preparing to sleep.

We’d been on open water most of the afternoon. Now, as we drifted close to the shore, I started noticing a completely different set of birds. There was a common redshank (Tringa totanus), its mottled and streaky feathers quite distinctive. I didn’t want the Black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) in the photo, but the boat was drifting slowly and there was no quick way of getting it out of the way, except by changing focus.

There were reeds near the shore. I’d seen Garganeys (Spatula querquedula) all day, dabbling in the open waters. The white streaks on the head are quite distinctive. But none had come close enough for a photo. I took one now through the reeds. Behind it were Grey-headed swamphen (Porphyrio poliocephalus, formerly known as the Indian subspecies of Purple swamphens). I would get photos of them later.

At this time of the day, the colour of the water depends very strongly on which direction you look at. As I turned my gaze westwards I saw a Grey heron (Ardea cinerea) seated atop a mooring post sunk into the water. Behind it you can see one of the small villages dotted along the edge of the lake.

And finally, looking due west, on a sea of gold, a Brown-headed gull (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) had stopped its incessant daily flights, patrolling the water to keep it free of fish. Now it rested gently in the shallows. Later it would paddle closer to the shore and go to sleep on a sandbank. It was time for us to turn back too.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

Living on water

Behind Ujani Dam is a huge shallow lake, named after the biggest town on its shores: Bhigwan. It is a birder’s paradise, especially in winter, when migrants flock here. All year round there are cormorants, ospreys and fisherfolk. I kept one eye on the fisherfolk as we boated over the surface looking at the visiting birds. The lone man whom you see in the featured photo sits on a raft which is simply a large slab of styrofoam. His fishing line and his simple paddle, two steel dinner plates nailed to a pole, show that his is a small operation.

There are more elaborate operations. This boat is one of them. It was piled with fishing nets and three people were deploying them across the lake. The boat listed heavily to one side as two men played out the net, and a third laid it down. We’d seen the same trio the previous evening, laying down traps for shrimp and crabs (photo below). Theirs was a big operation. I suppose people claim parts of the lake for their own. I wonder whether this leads to conflict, and whether there are rules and adjudicators for these rights. The lake is a commons, and there must be some governance over it.

[Analytic philosophy explores a world in which] people play cricket, cook cakes, make simple decisions, remember their childhood and go to the circus, not the world in which they commit sins, fall in love, say prayers or join the Communist Party.

The Borders of Analytic Philosophy, Iris Murdoch

Then there are the operations in-between. I saw a few couples working together: a family at work feeding themselves and earning a living. Here the woman rows while the man plays out a net. We’d seen a farmer couple the previous evening returning home from a day in the field, the man rowing a boat loaded with fodder as the woman sat at the stern.

But, as Iris Murdoch says, not everything is so clear. I saw a man beating the water with a pole, while a boy sat at the horsehead bow that all these boats have. Why? There were coots swimming around him. Was it happenstance, or were the two connected?

A rigorous Medusa

Yet thought must see
That eve of time when man no longer yearns,
Grown deaf before Life’s Sphinx, whose lips are barred;
When from the spaces of Eternity,
Silence, a rigorous Medusa, turns
On the lost world the stress of her regard.

Sphinx and Medusa (1975) Clark Ashton Smith

Evening on the lake

As evening fell the activity on Bhigwan lake changed. Work began to wind down. I noticed a boat low in the water with a couple in it, the man rowing. I waited until I could take a silhouette of the boat against the setting sun. They could be farmers returning from the field. This is Baramati district. The large farmers here grow sugarcane. So, if they are farmers at all, then perhaps they are small-holders, they could have been reaping the winter’s produce. All around the lake we’d seen small patches of various grains ripening.

Just a little earlier we’d seen herds of cows being driven home. They walked out into over a long finger of land into shallows on the lake to take a last drink of water in the evening. Around the muddy banks of the lake, in the shallows where no agriculture was done, we’d noticed grass growing. The lake in this season is a good place for cows and buffalos. It yields both grass and water in the commons, no need to buy expensive fodder.

But herding and agriculture are fringe activities, so to say. Fishing is the work that we’d watched all day. At lunch we’d eaten fresh tilapia from the lake. I was surprised; tilapia is not a native species. It seems to have been introduced to the lake after Ujani Dam was built. The presence of herons, gulls, terns, and flamingos on the lake was a clue that there were other fish, as well as crustaceans, here. The traps that the fishermen were laying were for shrimps. The catch of tilapia is so large that, in the day I spent there, I couldn’t figure what other fish is found in the river and lake.

Terning gullible

Evening fell on Bhigwan lake as we gave up our search for the Taiga Bean Goose and drifted gently to a spit of land where a mass of brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) were preparing to roost. The noisy squawks and squabbling of a typical gull colony had died down. A few had gone to sleep, tucking their heads down on their shoulders. When these birds sleep, their knees lock so that they don’t keel over. Most species of birds alternately put one hemisphere of their brains to sleep: the eye that faces out from the shoulder is connected to the hemisphere which is awake.

Brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus)

Most of these birds still had the winter’s white head with just a small dark “ear muff” colouring well behind their eyes. But in a very few the head had turned that rich dark brown which signifies that they are ready to breed. It was the middle of March, and the day had been very hot, so it was time for these birds to begin their flights back to Ladakh, Mongolia, and Tajikistan, where they breed. On days like that I wish I was ready to fly off to these cold high plateaus too.

River terns (Sterna aurantia)

As we drifted we saw, for the first time that day, a group of river terns (Sterna aurantia). All of them had developed the fully black caps and the bright bills which denote the coming of spring. Appropriate enough, since Holi was just three days away. We’d last seen them in masses from a boat on the Chambal river. It was good to see them here, closer to home. Since they are resident birds, there will be opportunities of seeing them over the breeding season, which continues till the beginning of the monsoon. In most species of terns individuals do not begin to breed at the end of their first year. The river terns seem to be an exception. You might expect that this would make them less vulnerable to habitat loss, but we seem to have taken care of this roadblock to extinction by polluting most water bodies around us.

Heuglin’s gull (Larus fuscus heuglini)

When you spend enough time staring at a flock you see the little things you may have missed at first. There was a Heuglin’s gull (Larus fuscus heuglini) hiding among them. Once considered a separate species, it is now treated as just another subspecies of lesser black-backed gulls. The rest of the species breeds in the west of Europe, but the population which includes the individual we saw comes from the far northern tundra of Russia, breeding along the coast of the Laptev Sea. This sea contributes most of the ice in the Arctic Ocean. Its harsh climate made for a very weird ecosystem. But now, as the world warms and the sea ice production falls off, this gull is seeing its breeding grounds become subject to the fastest changing climate in the world. It lives at the thin edge of climate change. On that peaceful, rapidly cooling, evening I wondered how the bird life of Bhigwan would change in the lifetime of the eight year old youngster who watched all this with me.

The long take off

Look out of your window and watch a bird take flight. You might see it push off from a perch and gain lift with hard strokes of its wings. Or you might see it drop, open its wings into a glide, and then begin to beat them for lift. On the surface of water neither method works. Water is too level to drop into a glide from, and too fluid to push against. So water birds have the ungainly take off that airplanes do. On Bhigwan lake we watched the long runs of coots (Fulica atra) as they scattered from approaching boats. They don’t flee from perceived danger; they take off in the direction that they face, sometimes towards the approaching boat. Perhaps it would take them longer to turn than to take off. I should time them.

The bar-headed geese (Anser indicus), those champion fliers, have even longer runs to take off. But the longest runs that we saw were those of greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus). The flight of birds is quite different from that of an aircraft of course, but still, a greater weight would require a longer run for take off, unless the musculature and wings of two birds are very different. So a flamingo needs a longer runway than a coot, just as a Dreamliner needs a longer runway than a Cessna Skyhawk. A practical benefit of understanding this is that if you want to find coots and small ducks you could just drop by a small pond, but you need to find lakes if you want to watch geese and flamingos.

When you remember just a few birthday parties, anything resembling one seems like a grand thing. The Newphew was understandably excited about his coming “half birthday“, especially with an aunt willing to indulge every whim. Having heard of the pleasures of birding from his once-a-birder mom, he had asked for a day’s birding with his aunt. So off we went to Bhigwan near Pune for a full day’s birding: from before sunrise to after sunset.

The lake is extensive, created by the damming of the Bhima river at the Ujani village. Typically the backwater of a dam is known by the name of the dam, so this could have been called the Ujani lake. However, in this case the backwater is named Yashwant Sagar. But by a truly Alice-in-wonderland twist, most birders know this as Bhigwan lake, by the name of the town of Bhigwan on the lake. The lake covers around 350 square kilometers of area. When the dam was finished in 1980, it submerged 82 villages and their surrounding agricultural land. Now trees and electric pylons break the surface of the water, providing perches for the tens of thousands of birds, many migratory, which come to this lake every winter.

The Newphew is exactly at the age where he finds it hilarious that the white branches of trees are normal branches covered with bird droppings. He was excited by the masses of black cormorants on the “poo trees”. And he grew even more excited when we pointed out the few great cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) sitting among the darker Indian cormorants (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis).

The excitement multiplied when he located the single oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster, aka Indian snakebird) sitting on one of the trees filled with cormorants. One of the characteristics of eight years olds is their discovery that they can be contrary. He had packed his own binoculars when he packed his backpack for the trip, but he’d refused to use them on the boat. Their cloak of contrariness falls away when they are excited. The Newphew dropped his act of contrariness and stared at these birds with his binoculars.

With the breaking of the ice, he was ready to see more. And we saw much more: grey herons (Ardea cinerea), northern shovelers (Spatula clypeata), black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa), Eurasian coots (Fulica atra), Asian openbills (Anastomus oscitans), Indian spot-billed ducks (Anas poecilorhyncha), an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) at breakfast, and many more. Before lunch he sat down and, with our help, made a list of all the birds that he’d seen in the morning. He couldn’t stop telling everyone that he’d seen 58 different species before breakfast, including the very rare sighting of a Taiga bean goose (Anser fabalis).

There was a session of bird watching planned for the evening and another safari at night. This was the height of excitement for him. At the age of 8 1⁄2 he was tasting La Dolce Vita. By the time night fell and he helped to pin down an Indian nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus) in crossed beams of light he was in a state of extreme hyper-alertness. He took time to fall asleep, but then slept through a rooster’s untimely calls that kept us awake at night.

And for us too, this was a day of excitement. Not just because we’d seen almost 90 species of birds in the day, but also because we’d shared this world with a new person. Our familiar natural world is part of the great succession of life on the planet. As we make it uninhabitable for the life that shares the cenozoic era with us, our time is as limited as the species we help to wipe out. Hopefully, by making enough of the screen-bound generation into nature lovers, we can postpone the great extinction of our times and the resulting birth of a post-human earth.

The same old story

And she turn’d—her bosom shaken with a sudden storm of sighs—
All the spirit deeply dawning in the dark of hazel eyes—

Saying, “I have hid my feelings, fearing they should do me wrong”;
Saying, “Dost thou love me, cousin?” weeping, “I have loved thee long.”

Love took up the glass of Time, and turn’d it in his glowing hands;
Every moment, lightly shaken, ran itself in golden sands.

Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might;
Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling, pass’d in music out of sight.

Locksley Hall, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;

In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

Locksley Hall, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The couple in the featured photo are Ruddy Shelducks (Tadorna ferruginea). This may be the most treacly sweet photo I have of them, but my most memorable sighting of these birds was in a Himalayan lake at an altitude of slightly more than 5 Kms above sea level. The oxygen levels are so low at that height that my brain stopped functioning, and I could not get the dust cap off my camera. They are thought to pair for life. The second photo shows a pair of Grey herons (Ardea cinerea) with the elegant long black crest feathers that they sport in spring. From their behaviour it didn’t look like they were a mated pair. I took both these photos from a boat on the backwaters of the Ujani dam near Bhigwan in Maharashtra.

Doors of Kumbharwada

A day and a half of bird watching took us to a site well known to local birders: the backwater of a Ujani dam next to the village of Bhigwan. We stayed at a farmhouse in the nearby village of Kumbharwada. Just before we left in the morning today, I walked around the yard clicking photos. In the morning light the old doors of a wing of the main house looked grand.

I stepped closer for details. The texture of the weather beaten paint, the sunburnt wood below it, the rusted iron handle, kept smooth and polished by the touch of many hands, the old-style lock hanging from it, all looked wonderful in the morning’s light. Do notice the loop of thread from which the key to the lock hangs.

From the road you see little of the house. What was most noticeable was the number of means of transport parked in the entrance area: one of several SUVs, with the supplementary means of transport being the numerous motor bikes. I would also count the cow in the background as an emergency means of transport, should it be needed.

I walked back to our car which was parked in a new block around the yard. This was clearly extremely new. The paint on the walls looked like it may have been a year old. Two green patches of lawn were startling in this yard which was otherwise bone dry. The farmer had created an enclosed garden to one side of this block, and planted rushes around the ditch which carried away the waste water of the farmhouse. All this was well thought out. As an enthusiastic birder, he had created little environments which attracted different birds. We saw sunbirds, bulbuls and mynas in the garden. The rushes were full of warblers and pipits. But for today I will star the doors of the rooms in this block: wonderful designs obtained by crossing 1920s vintage futurism with the op art of the 1960s.

But I could not leave the farmyard without a tribute to the intrepid mouser who kept away the freeloaders who would otherwise venture in from the fields. I felt some respect for him, not the animosity I felt when I saw the rooster strutting around the yard. That guy had woken me up at three in the morning, practicing his monotonous call for two hours. Seeing him as I had my breakfast, I felt again a desire to wring his neck. Rooster soup for breakfast would perhaps save others from my fate, I thought.