April 28, 2011

Bharatpur’s Wandering Waterhen

It was just as well that the wandering Waterhen that had emerged from a thicket in the shade of the Peepal tree we had paused under to catch our breath at noon on a hot April day in Bharatpur was unaware of its name, blissfully unaware no less.

I probably understood the ‘blissful’ part of ‘unaware’ the best that summer day three years ago. There was sufficient irony in the name given the context of the situation the Waterhen had emerged from. Well, I could see the ‘hen’ alright, but barely spotted any water, except in isolated instances, along the entire stretch we had cycled through after renting the bicycles at the entrance to the Keoladeo National Park (popularly known as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary) in Rajasthan for Rs. 25/- each.

While the bicycles were charged Rs. 25/- per visit, and you could spend the whole day cycling about in the bird sanctuary and not have to pay a paisa more, the three-wheeler Cycle Rickshaws rented out were however charged by the hour at Rs. 50/- per hour.

On the bright side you were saved from doing the pedaling yourself and could instead rest easy on the seat behind the Rickshawallah with binoculars on the ready as he rode the beaten three-wheeler along. However I preferred steering the bicycle myself if only so I could pause at the first sighting of a bird, or pause for pausing sake.

Intrigued by the parched countryside, an elderly Rickshawallah I met and conversed with along the way shrugged his shoulders resignedly and in a tone as despondent as the dry beds flanking the riding path on either side, said, “Too much politics. Villagers instigated by politicians tapping into the prevailing resentment have blocked the flow of water to the bird sanctuary.”

I was surprised to say the least, given the place of pride the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary holds among wetlands of similar stature, its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation notwithstanding. Birdwatchers over the years would speak of 350+ bird species inhabiting the 28+ Sq. Km. wetland area.

But in that moment, strained from seeing water beds drying out, I would’ve considered myself lucky if there were 350+ birds about the place, let alone as many species. However, we were lucky in that while the lack of water affects water birds, it’s not as much of an impediment to the other bird species not as reliant on water bodies for survival, species like the Parakeet, the Tree Pie, the Pheasant Crow, the Jungle Babbler and the Bulbul among others.

We would eventually run up a list of bird sightings in excess of 50-60 species if I remember correctly, many of which I had seen before. However this was little consolation for the lack of sufficient variety in water bird species we saw excepting the few fishing in the water amid weeds. I had hoped to see species of water birds not easily available elsewhere or rarely ever sighted away from wetlands.

Bharatpur was once the home of the valourous Jat kings and is for all purposes, notwithstanding Haryana, the heartland of the Jats, a community not averse to using muscle to back their demands, and for many among them it would unthinkable to do otherwise if Jat pride and dignity, derived as much from their folklore as from present day reality, were seen to be threatened or undermined in any way. Pride as an apt synonym would not be out of place with the Jats.

And I had heard of the rumblings before. Stories of how farmers, fearing lack of sufficient water to irrigate their fields, their fears stoked further by politicians not beyond making their political opponents squirm in their seats whatever the consequences, had eventually agitated successfully for shutting off the water, leaving the thousands of migratory birds headed for Bharatpur in dire straits. And it showed in the countryside as we rode along.

The agitation had centered around farmers opposing the release of water from the Panchna Dam located upstream of the Gambhir river, the primary source of water to the bird sanctuary. Political expediency ensured the gates of the Panchna Dam remained shut, and the bird sanctuary collared by the neck until it went almost entirely dry just as the summer rounded the bend.

The Gambhir river is the main source of water to the Ghana Canal, the lifeline of the park. The water flowing through the Ghana Canal is then routed around the park by a system of dykes and canals via a series of sluice gates, resulting from astute water management.

But water shortage through much of the park meant there was little to manage. The rust showed on the sluice gates standing on dry earth as I cycled along, shored up by gravel. Elsewhere, grass had come alive, at places swaying to the breeze stiffening up. The earth showed signs of wear from the harsh and unforgiving Rajasthan summer.

A measuring bar for water level stood likewise, pegged into dry earth. The notches indicating height rose upward speaking of times when water levels had risen, and probably stayed near head high, or at the very least indicating the levels the water could be expected to rise in the years the bird sanctuary had done well, the Siberian cranes among its guests. Over time it had gone a foot under, the silt hardening and lifting the earth by a foot no less!

What little water remained was stagnating in the Ghana Canal where Sambhars vied with domesticated cattle for water while the few water birds about in the water dodged them both. And it was at the turning in the road located at the Ghana Canal that we had stopped under the Peepal tree approaching noon when the Waterhen had come sniffing by.

Tom and Anne had gone in search of the Indian Courser the bird-watching guide had promised to show them, disappearing from view along a rutted path that led off the narrow road meandering through the bird sanctuary while we waited under a Peepal tree watching a Tree Pie, its distinctive whites on the tail having betrayed its presence in the lush foliage it shared with a noisy Jungle Babbler unhappy at being abandoned by its six sisters.

Also keeping us company was an inquisitive Red Vented Bulbul that would turn its head at an impossible angle from time to time to ensure we were up to no mischief, straightening up each time I caught its eye accusingly. The birds of Bharatpur, I would soon learn, left nothing to chance. With water scarce they could be excused their discretion.

A cycle rickshaw parked off the road was soon subject to a searching examination by the White Breasted Waterhen that had emerged from the bushes and wandered about unmindful of our presence, its short stubby tail held erect behind it while it glided along on long legs like a stilt walker at a village fair. Finding the cycle rickshaw to be in order it turned its attention to us. I kept the entry tickets handy just in case it decided we did not pass muster.

It was clearly evident that it had little fear of humans. Now whether it resulted from proximity to non-threatening human presence from a young age or from the compulsion to seek food in their presence is debatable though I’d go along with the former.

Approaching us up the road, a birding group made up of foreign tourists and led by a local birdwatching guide turned their faces up as the guide pointed to Kites circling in the skies overhead, identifying them for the benefit of the birders as they positioned their camera tripods for an unlikely shot.

Some others were on their own, smiling nervously on bicycles that tested their resolve to avoid making an embarrassment of themselves astride wheels built more for transportation and a sturdy backside than for riding pleasure. And there was no rope trick to fall back upon if the balance fell away.

Yet others stopped by to photograph the Waterhen as it sauntered about with an authority and sense of purpose that’d have made a Park Ranger proud, all along oblivious to the irony its name presented with the dry spell blanketing the bird sanctuary.

The irony was not very different from the skinniest boy in the class named Bhim, or the class bully named Shantibhushan, or the shy wisp of a boy named Ranvir who rarely ever piped up in class, or worse still the lad who shunned sports for fear of injury named Ranvijay. The intention behind the names was noble, but when has destiny ever contrived with intent to do justice to reality? Never.

But atleast the Waterhen’s parents were not to blame for its name, not that it was any consolation to its state of existence!

Before returning from the birding sojourn that summer day I wished the wandering Waterhen well and hoped the wetland would soon do justice to its name.

Note: Subsequent to my Bharatpur trip the situation in the bird haven is said to have improved considerably with the Rajasthan Government relenting in the face of urgent calls to release water from the dam, replenishing the Gambhir river downstream, and in turn the Keoladeo National Park.

The Keoladeo National Park is open to visitors through the year. Bicycles, Cycle Rickshaws, and Tongas are available on rent/hire at the Park entrance. Birdwatching Guides are available on hire at the same location, with hourly charges for leading a group between 1-5 people set at Rs. 70/-, and Rs. 120/- for a group more than five people. The rates might have changed since my own trip to Bharatpur.


Viju said...

Nicely written and captured. I was almost able to live the experience of having gone to Bharatpur. I must visit this place sometime. Interesting to see something like this in Rajasthan :-)

Riot Kitty said...

I have to wonder: who documents 50 or 60 species of birds?

marja-leena said...

Nice story and photos of rhe waterhen! Good to hear that the water is back in the park, lucky for the hen.

Anuradha Shankar said...

wonderful!!! and all this around a sole water hen... what an irony indeed.... and yes, i too have heard that Bharatpur has improved, and would love to visit sometime... lets see how it turns out when i finally find my way there..... incidentally, we have quite a few water hens in our locality here in bbay, and they are always seen only near water.... the bharatpur bird would probably have 'adjusted' itself to the lack of water!

Anil P said...

Viju: Bharatpur is among the best birding destinations in India, now that reports say water is flowing back into the National Park.

While I visited Bharatpur in the summer, the best time to visit Bharatpur should be the period October - January. Many winter migratory birds make their way there.

Riot Kitty: For involved birders, logging 50-60 bird species is nothing, they're meticulous, will spend hours and days on end doing it, finding joy in ticking the names off their list of birds to see.

In Bharatpur, sighting 50-60 species over two days is achievable. I'm not certain of the exact number we managed, but it was about 50.

Marja-Leena: Thank you. I hope this particular Waterhen is now doing well.

Anu: Thank you. Visit Bhartpur for the birds in the winter, the best time to visit the bird haven.

You're lucky you get to see the Waterhen in Bombay.

Lynn said...

Lovely post - the bird photos are so wonderful, too.

My Unfinished Life said...

nicely captured images and well documented travel post!!!
i was relieved after reading ur note at the end of the post about the improvement in the water situation...it is indeed very pathetic the way politicians instigate innocent villagers for small time gains!!!

Hope bharatpur sees better days...and i plan to visit this plc sometime!!!

Anil P said...

Lynn: Thank you. The bird seems to wear its white tie rather well.

Shooting Star: Thank you. Bharatpur birds will always be in a precarious situation, surrounded by human habitation, a continuing pressure on land and resources.

Eventually it'll come down to political will and people participation in continuing to provide it with protection.

Grannymar said...

In the penultimate photo the bird looks like he is dressed for dinner. All that is missing is the bow-tie. You bring these places alive for folks like me who may never have the chance to visit India.

Anil P said...

Grannymar: I'm glad you made the connection. I was hoping someone would.

Only the bow-tie is missing. Someday you might want to visit India.

Indian Bazaars said...

As one reads your post, one is so gently lead into the place you are describing that it comes as a surprise when at the end you find you are just a reader of an experience not your own and have enjoyed it all so much! Thanks, Anil.

Anil P said...

Indian Bazaars: Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed the journey alongside.

Anonymous said...

One of my reporting trips took me there... amazing place, can see you enjoyed too :)

- Pallavi (http://storycellar.blogspot)

Anonymous said...

hello!its been a while ....ur photographs are as breath-taking as I remember them :)
Am back...and have so much to catch up on!

Anil P said...

Pallavi: Thank you. It's a nice place no doubt. These days it's a treat to come upon any open space, any.

Limenlemons: Thank you. It's been a long time indeed. Good to see you back. Hope things are fine with you.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written and well captured. Bird photography is so tough..I loved reading this post..

Anil P said...

Weourlife: Thank you. Luckily, the Waterhen was strutting about us without fear or favour, else these pictures would've been difficult to make.

Meena Venkataraman said...

Read this article a couple of times and wanted to leave a comment, but was always on the go and it didn't seem right to write something in haste :)..
Very well written...
It seems the same story everywhere..conflict between man and nature..
coming to think of it we are so inherently colonial :)... It is scary at times to think that there might arrive a point when we might drive so many others (whos world it is too) to extinction.. Hmmm!

Anil P said...

Meena Venkataraman: Thank you.

The conflict between Man and Nature will continue until -

(1) We make it our responisibility to ensure that species (other than us) have an equal right to exist as we do.

(2) We stop the policy of only justifying protection / conservation if conserved areas earn the Govt. revenue.

Nature is far too important to be denied protection/conservation on the basis of revenue it earns for us as in tourism potential etc.

asanandan said...

Yours photos are looking great.

Anil P said...

Asanandan: Thank you.