Big bird day
PEOPLE usually ask "How many bird species are there in Delhi?" and look at you as if you've lost your marbles when you say, that over 500 species have been recorded from Delhi state altogether, though a more contemporary score would be a little over 400. Four hundred species, they say, or 400 birds, or is this just the usual arrogance of people from the capital wanting to hog the limelight all the time? (After all, 400 species is a third of all the species recorded in the country!) Well, Delhi ranks second only to Nairobi (Kenya, Africa) among the number of species that can be seen in any capital city in the world, which is a good enough place to begin. But stepping up the pace now, how many species can you see in a single day? And as we live in a world of one day matches, and two-minute noodles, that's what members of the Delhi bird club decided to find out on Sunday, February 22, 2004. How many bird species was it possible to see within two hours driving from the heart of Delhi, in 12-hour period?
Five teams of birders, comprising about 40 people in all, fanned out in the early hours of that Sunday, to check it out. The areas to be covered by each team, the routes to be taken, the timings were all plotted like a military campaign. The hotspot areas that had to be covered included the Bhindawas bird sanctuary, the Sultanpur National Park and Basai (now all but dried up), South Delhi, the Badkhal Lake and the Asola Sanctuary, the Yamuna and its banks at Okhla and north of Wazirabad, the Northern Ridge, and areas around Sonipat-Panipat, covering a sort of natural habitat in the Delhi area. Of course, the birds were not informed about this great roll call, and while some unusual species turned up as pleasant surprises, the more common ones played truant. Among the welcome surprises were the Lesser Kestrel at Sultanpur, the Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker from Sonipat, the Heuglin's gull from Okhla, and the Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes from the Sonipat-Panipat area and the Yamuna north of Wazirabad. The truants included the Small Minivet, the Dusky Crag Martin, the Koel and the Lesser Whistling Duck. (Next year perhaps they shall be informed that attendance is mandatory!)
To some it might sound crazy to be dashing around the countryside all day, looking (and listening out) for birds in every nook and cranny. (A Rock Eagle Owl was discovered under a roadside bush, so you just have to in order to winkle out the fugitives!) But when you actually do so, you suddenly become aware of how many sights and sounds you just take for granted and ignore in the course of everyday humdrum life. Between the time I stepped out of the house and started the car (maybe four or five minutes) I had marked five or six species present! Also, you become aware of how much you miss out on, because you simply don't look or listen hard enough. Now, every speck in the sky, every fluttering leaf on a tree, every bobbing bit of flotsam and jetsam on the river has to be checked out thoroughly, like perhaps the Americans check out visitors to their country these days. That far away little paddler, sitting up straight in the water could have been dismissed as a dabchick, or little grebe, but some faraway voice in your head suggested it was different. And a good look through the glasses nailed it as a black-necked grebe, its identity confirmed as pucca little grebes, came swimming by to enable you to compare the two. Two tiny silvery-white blobs far away in mid-river turned out to be a pair of Great Crested Grebes, freaking out, twisting their necks this way and that as they rode the waves, and then suddenly sat up very straight indeed, as if they knew they were suddenly in the spotlight. Certainly they seemed to be at home in Delhi, (they are winter visitors) for when a news cameraman turned up, they drifted in closer ever hopeful to make it to the evening news! Above the great Okhla sand mound, a Peregrine falcon stooped on a Black-winged Stilt, which escaped, and later in the day, spectacularly chased away another of its ilk. And of course, some of the birds will play hard to get, on this, their bird day, or shall we call it Happy Bird Day? You know a particular species hangs out in a particular locality you scan the area till you're blue in the face, but no go, it just refuses to make an appearance it's probably chosen this Sunday out of five Sundays in February for God's sake, to go visiting its mother-in-law in some godforsaken corner of the capital you think sourly! Tomorrow morning it'll greet you cheerfully from its usual place like a long lost friend! But the happy unexpected surprises more than make up for these party poopers!
At the end of the day, the roll calls were read out from the various areas. Bhindawas and Kildorth scored 137, Sultanpur and Basai 138, South Delhi 162, North Delhi 86, and the Sonipat-Panipat areas 182. The grand total was 236 species, not bad for a day's work, but it's certain that with more participants, and more areas thoroughly scanned, this figure can yet be improved. Apart from anything else, it's just marvellous to know that so many species are present (on any given day in this season) in an area with a human population of over 14 million people. Is there any place in the world where such unplanned cooperation exists?
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