Sunday, July 5, 2015

Carcasses and vultures

15th January 2015 began at Phalodi, and the Demoiselle cranes at Kichan.

It ended rather differently.

"Turn right on the Jeypore highway."
"You have reached your destination."

The electronic GPS lady-with-an-American-accent informed us that we were at our destination - the Jorbeer carcass dumping site.  But we were at the end of a T junction in the middle of nowhere, and quite lost.

We then did our navigation the old-fashioned (and for India the more effective way quite often), rolled down the windows and asked a local trundling along on his bicycle.

We arrived a little too late in the evening, and the sun was already low in the sky.  On the outskirts of Bikaner, we were at this large empty semi-desert acreage, where the city dumps its cattle carcasses.

The air was filled with raptors, as too the ground.

Tractors come and unload the cattle carcasses of the city and the neighbouring towns here.  There are piles of  meat, which are then picked clean by the scavenging birds on duty, increasingly in competition with feral dogs.

The scenery is unattractive, and there is an odour of rotting flesh.  We kept a safe distance from the carcasses, and so we were not overpowered by the stench or the flies.

We kept together, and one of us kept an eye on the dogs, which are aggressive and territorial.

Egyptian vultures, European griffins, Steppe Eagles - all migrants - abound.  We also saw Cinereous vultures.

And flitting in the undergrowth, camouflaged in the brown of the sand were a flock of Isabelline wheatears as well.

Steppe eagles in plenty, as at Taal chapper.

On every shrub, every mound, there seemed to be the Steppe Eagles, as common here, as crows in Madras, it seemed!

A steppe eagle soared by

And the Egyptian vultures sat around, everywehere, roosting communally on top of bushes like this.....
.... circling in the sky, distinctive with their wedge-shaped tails......

...feeding on the carrion, the juvenile blacks and the adult whites.....

....unbothered by the dogs...

Neophron percnopterus - looking like they could do with a good wash to clean themselves!  They are or were seen across the Indian sub continent. 

I read that they feed on feaces to get the carotenoid pigment that gives them those yellow faces, which is a sign of good health.  How gross is that?!

More than the ground, it was the show in the sky that was riveting.

A large Eurasian Griffon came into view, making the Egyptian vultures look small.

 Gyps fulvus - we saw it ride the thermals, gliding effortlessly with its large wing span, its white head and long neck, reminding me of the vultures in Jungle Book.

The rufous brown underwings have a pale banding across.

See the stout bill, and this was probably a juvenile as the bill was greyish.  It looked all grown up and fierce to me though
 These Gyps are also probably affected by diclofenac poisoning, and their numbers are on the decline.

They are probably a resident population, moving to the Himalayas in summer.
See the larger Cinereous

And then came the even larger Cinereous Vulture into view!

Aegypius monachus - this is the largest vulture species, appearing all black in the sky.

They hold their wings quite often in this arched fashion, and have a slow flapping, given their broad wing spans.

And then it was back to the eagles -

Tawny Eagle - with the gape line extending only until the eyes, and not beyond like the "smiling" Steppe eagles.

Another one sat on the ground in the distance.
 A great place for idying vultures is here.

A rib cage picked clean by the scavengers - clear evidence of their role in the natural world.

The light was fast fading, or rather had faded, and the dogs appeared even more menacing, and we decided to leave.

A strange and unattractive place, and I ruminated as we trundled along in the car that I would never have known of this place but for the MNS group.

Across India, there are dumps like this, it seems, where cattle carcasses are dumped after removing their hides.  The fall in vulture populations has caused a serious problem in their disposal.  The diclofenac seems to affect the Gyps vultures more, which could be the reason why the Egyptian vultures seem to be in greater numbers.

Vibhu Prakash of BNHS has documented their decline.

Some others had gone to the camel research centre nearby, and ofcourse Dhruva had to do the last of his disappearing act as he wandered off to buy camel milk from the National Camel centre!!

Sheila's birthday and Shobha and Vijay's wedding anniversary - what an eventful day!  Forgotten havelis at Phalodi, Demoiselle cranes by the thousands at Kichan, mustard fields and khejri trees, vultures and a carcass dump, a bone-rattling drive to Sujangarh, and finally dinner at Rich Garden Sujangarh, which had no garden to speak of!

The next morning, it was another eventful day as we headed to Taal Chapper.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Demoiselle cranes of Kichan

January 14th/15th

We found ourselves in the town of Phalodi on Sankranti this year.  Here were we, more than 2,000 kms from our home in Madras, where I grew and schooled.  I discover that two of my classmates have their ancestral roots here.  It somehow blew my mind then, and continues to do so now, as to how families just upped and moved across the continent.  Their migration similar to the long one that the cranes undertake it seemed.

We trundled in to the neighbouring town of Kichan on the evening of 14th to see the visiting Demoiselle cranes at the lake in the town.

This was our first sighting of these birds, as the sun was setting.  The local villagers and children seemed to pay no notice to them.

And neither were they bothered by us.  Coming all the way from Mongolia every winter and familiar to the locals as koonj.

Supposedly in Hindi litereature of old, a beautiful woman was compared to the koonj, with its graceful neck!

The little lake had other residents - lapwings, stilt, shovellers, godwit, kingfishers, little grebes - but of course the cranes were the big attraction for us.

As the sun dipped we could see the spire of the local temple.
Rakesh and Mukesh who befriended Sekar.  They quite charmed him, as he gave them his camera and made them click a couple of pictures!
We checked in to Fort View Hotel at neighbouring Phalodi, a neat  little hotel which had used the crumbling fort next door as a billboard sadly!

The chugga ghars of Kichan were our destination the next morning.

And because he is a better narrator of stories,
Sekar writes

Phalodi is a nondescript town on the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer road.  As you enter the town and drive past the railway station, you are assaulted by the sights and smells of small town India.  Cattle, goats, pigs, two-wheelers, autos, lorries, cars, buses and pedestrians all jostle for space on pockmarked remnants of roads.  Sewage spills out of the open drains, there is litter everywhere as is that bane of today’s India: plastic waste. 

We entered the town at dusk, past long lines of dimly lit shops, establishments selling auto parts jostling for space with eateries, godowns, money lenders and recycled waste peddlers.

Why would anyone want to live in a place like this?  Why does an entire town need to look like the contents of a dustbin?  And why this cacaphony of trade and traffic?  And, as with every Indian town crowded with right-angled concrete pillar and beam structures, why this complete lack of aesthetics?

Quite abruptly, we turned into a narrower lane complete with open sewer, and with much less room to manouevre.  No pigs and dogs here: only cattle occupying the middle ground and daring vehicles to bump them as they attempted to squeeze past.  As we drove further into the lane, it struck me, one, that the noise levels were lower; two, that we were in a residential part of town; and three, that the residences themselves were not unadorned concrete and brick rectangles.  Dusk was nigh and the light fading, but we could see that house after house had red sandstone facades, many with elaborate carvings.  Some houses had small overhanging balconies. Elaborate carved doors and windows faced the street.  The buzz and noise of India were largely absent and this was puzzling.
We had a little time early the next morning and decided to explore.
School girls, smartly dressed in their winter uniforms, went by on bicycles, wishing us good morning and wanting to know if we needed directions.  It was nice to see such good cheer on a dull, cold, and foggy morning.   

We walked past a shabby fort with crumbling walls, modest by Rajasthani standards.  Advertisements and graffiti covered the lower ramparts.   

Mere antiquity without history or aesthetics is meaningless it seems.  I wondered how long it would be before the real estate the fort enclosed fell victim to modern development.


We then turned into the street with the sandstone facades.  

This part of town was indeed different.  The houses we had seen the previous evening lined both sides of the streets like books on a packed bookshelf.  There were no trees on the street and no front yards or gardens: the houses opened directly onto the street.  The houses themselves were in various states of repair.  Some were derelict and unoccupied; others locked up but clearly being maintained; and yet others with open doors, drains emptying into the open sewers, and people going about their early morning business.   

We could see courtyards, some with trees or little gardens, through the open doors.

The stonework adorned the first floors in most cases.  The windows were framed with elaborate carvings and topped with varied overhanging eaves all in the same red sandstone.  The houses looked broadly similar: two stories in most cases, similar windows and doors, and the same red sandstone faces.  Details marked each one from its neighbour.  They differed in size, though.  Modest buildings with a single pair of windows flanking their doors stood next to grand havelis that stretched half the length of the street.  

One in particular stood out, both for its size and the richness of its ornamentation.  Built by the Dadha family more than a century earlier, it has been lovingly restored by the family and is now part hotel and part museum

The story of the family and the house they built echoes that of Phalodi.  The town was once (and I’m told still is) a centre for salt trading.  The elaborately decorated houses belonged to merchants, usually Jains, who made their fortunes as salt traders.  The salt trade continues, but it is not what it once was.   
The days when an unjust tax on salt could inspire a march to the sea at Dandi are long past.  Other opportunities beckoned, and people migrated to Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, the administrative and business centres of the British presidencies.   

Members of the Dadha family moved to Madras, eventually setting up a chemicals business.  They retained their Phalodi roots even as, over the years, the shoots they had put down in their new homes prospered and grew, and even as they acquired the languages and customs of their new homes.  In many cases (as with the Dadhas), only the family homes remain as reminders of their past in Phalodi.  

 Even today, we occasionally had the sense of being in a ghost town.

Kichan, not Phalodi, was our real destination.  We spent the night at Phalodi only because Kichan, five kilometres away, lacked even the most basic of hotels.  And we were at Kichan because of the birds.

Many species of birds winter in India.  Rajasthan is home to large numbers (and many species) of these winter migrants, and draws bird lovers and ornithologists from around the world.  Kichan, with a few open fields and a couple of small ponds, is on the face of it an unlikely destination for either birds or birders.  There are plenty of large water bodies throughout Rajasthan, and the state itself has become greener over the past several decades.  And yet it is Kichan that boasts of perhaps the most spectacular display of feeding birds.

Birds, Demoiselle Cranes mostly, have been coming here for centuries.  About a century and a half back, some local Jains began leaving grain in the fields for the avian visitors.  Over the years the numbers of birds grew, and today Kichan is home to over 20,000 demoiselle cranes every winter.

By itself that would be a magnificent sight: cranes are graceful creatures, even if their version of birdsong tends to the raucous.  What makes Kichan special is that the cranes follow an orchestrated schedule: you know where they are going to be at any given time of day and for a birder that is a huge blessing.

We arrived at Kichan the previous evening, an hour and a bit more before sunset, just in time to see the last of several flocks finish their evening feed near a small lake before taking off for the night.  There were plenty of other birds going about their business in the lake: pintails, grebes, stilts, lapwings, herons and many others, but the cranes, congregated by the opposite shore, caught and held our eyes.  We caught our first glimpse of their behaviour as a flock.  At some point, they gathered together, turned in the same direction and started moving purposefully, almost as though they were readying for a takeoff.  And takeoff all together they did, the flock flying together towards the setting sun.   

We were awed, but this was the merest appetiser for what we were to see the next morning.

‘We need to be in position by 8.30 latest,’ Nabeel, our guide, informed us.  ‘We need to be on the move by eight.’

Our quick recce of the Phalodi havelis and a hurried breakfast done with, we drove through still sleepy streets and, some fifteen or twenty minutes later, parked on a nondescript street next to an empty, fenced-in, plot of about half an acre.  Single story houses stood on either side and elsewhere on the street.
Sewaramji (left) and Nabeel, our guide
It was a dull, overcast day, but the sharp cries of the cranes was very evident and as we looked up, we saw flock after flock wheeling overhead.  We were welcomed into a small courtyard by the very appropriately named Sewaramji.  A stocky, uniformed man with a stud adorning each ear, Sewaramji is the person responsible for spreading out the birds’ feed – jowar – around the empty plot.  This is a substantial task.  Twenty thousand and more cranes fly in around late August to mid September and leave for their Mongolian and southern Siberian summer homes only in March.  

They consume around 600 kilos of feed every day.  Various Jain charities pay for all this and Sewaramji and his helpers ensure that the food is ready when the birds are.

The Chugga Ghar.  The light brown patches are the grain spread on the ground.
8.30am we had been told, and as we climbed onto the terrace of a house adjoining the empty plot, the cranes were everywhere – flying in frenzied circles above us and perching on every empty patch of land all around.  The plot, with the grain spread around, stayed empty. 

And then, with an immense fluttering, a huge flock of pigeons flew past, circled the field once and then landed to begin a feeding frenzy amidst much frantic cooing and clucking.  We had come to see the cranes, not pigeons.  Just wait, Sewaramji assured us, the pigeons always feed first and leave and only then do the cranes come for their feed.  So we waited – and waited – while the pigeons leisurely had breakfast.  Even bird lovers find it difficult to like pigeons and there was much grumbling and noticeable annoyance all around.  In the meanwhile the cranes continued to mass on the open areas all around while small groups circled overhead crying all the while.

The pigeons arrive

Quite abruptly, a third of the pigeon flock took off, then a second third, followed very quickly by the rest leaving only five greedy stragglers and a cat that had strayed into the ground.

A lone crane made the short hop from the open ground over the fence and into the feeding ground.  The cat eyed it and made as if to approach it.   

A few more cranes followed, then even more, and before our eyes the plot began to fill up.   

Soon there were thousands of feeding birds and the cat withdrew in some confusion and alarm.

Demoiselle cranes are midsized birds, about 70-80cm high, but they are the smallest of the cranes. They have red eyes, graceful grey bodies rising up to a long and dark neck with a ruffled bib of feathers in front and a white plume trailing the head.  
Their long necks are extended in flight with their feet tucked back. Perhaps because it was the feeding hour, they were noisy even in flight. 

Known locally as Koonj, these birds are said to have inspired Valmiki’s poetry and are a metaphor for faithful loving couples in the legends and literature of North India.
They were clearly social birds.  The way they flew in flocks for the feed, the way they congregated as they fed with a minimum of jostling and quarreling but with plenty to say as they fed, they way they left in batches as they finished and the way the entire lot moved from place to place around Kichan all suggested strong social bonds.

But the sight (and sounds) of them feeding!  I’ve never seen anything like it and, judging from their comments and loud exclamations, neither had anyone else.  For one thing, there was the sheer number of birds packed into the field, and the racket they were making.  Then, how close we were to them.  Most birds are shy (crows and pigeons excepted of course!) and observing and photographing them requires patience, knowledge of their habits, and heavy duty equipment.  And yet here we were, less than ten metres from the closest birds which were going about their feeding completely oblivious to our presence.   

Artificial?  Perhaps yes in that the feed had been deliberately laid out by human hands.  But the birds’ migration, their presence in Kichan, and their social behaviour as they fed were all for real: nature showcasing herself for us.

As each group finished, they gathered themselves for the choreographed take-off: standing erect and all facing the same direction much like a well-drilled marching squad before taking off much as they had done the previous evening.  We were told that they would fly to the water bodies around Kichan, spending their days there before flying to their roosting grounds in the fields at dusk.

The local populace takes pride in the birds’ presence; they are aware of their movements, timings and habits and ensure that they are protected.  The birds themselves go about their routine unconcerned about the humans they share their space with.  Kichan is not an official sanctuary.  There are no guards or rangers here, no prohibited areas or protected spaces.   

And yet, because the people here have let them be, the Demoiselle cranes come here year after year, increasing in numbers as the years go by.  Perhaps that is a lesson for all of us: there is no reason why we – humans – and they – everything else – cannot peaceably share this land we have all been born into.

And if you want to get a sense of the experience, click on the video below which has footage of our visit to the Chugga ghar of Kichan.