WILDBUZZ: O! To be a wagtail, skipping stones on the blue Indus

As summer deepens in the tricity, many of our wonderful migratory birds disappear from our lives. Birds like the debonair Bar-headed goose or the proverbial golden girl, the Citrine wagtail, are no longer to be seen at the Sukhna lake and other wetlands.
A Citrine wagtail steps and skips across summery stones at the Indus river, Spituk village, Ladakh.(PHOTO: CHOLDAN GASHA)
A Citrine wagtail steps and skips across summery stones at the Indus river, Spituk village, Ladakh.(PHOTO: CHOLDAN GASHA)
Published on Jun 20, 2020 08:51 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Chandigarh | ByVikram Jit Singh

As summer deepens in the tricity, many of our wonderful migratory birds disappear from our lives. Birds like the debonair Bar-headed goose or the proverbial golden girl, the Citrine wagtail, are no longer to be seen at the Sukhna lake and other wetlands. We wonder where our feathered friends have gone leaving us to the heat, sweat and dust of May and June. The wagtail, one of the prettiest of birds to observe, flies up to summer spots as enchanting as the Indus river marshes in Ladakh and beyond for breeding. From many parts of India starved of water and facing drought, the people there may wish to turn into wagtails in summer and fly to the blue waters of the Indus, settle there for a few months, skip on stones, chatter like schoolchildren on a picnic, and stare at the sheer abundance of water, the nectar of life! Such is the charmed life of the wagtail, whose breeding spots on the Indus in summer has been magically captured by a Spituk village-based birder, Choldan Gasha.

The wagtail, like a happy dog, is prone to perpetually wagging its tail. While tourists have not flocked to Ladakh this summer due to Covid-19, Gasha reports that the Indus marshes near the Spituk Monastery not too far from Leh are hosting a larger number of wagtails as compared to last year. When wagtails winter in the tricity region, they are not seen in large flocks. But Gasha, who otherwise works for the civil supplies department, is fortunate enough to have seen flocks of 200 wagtails on the Indus. Just imagine the riot of golden feathers ducking and weaving across blue waters and against the backdrop of Ladakh’s matchless skies, whose beauty needs no photoshopping.

To conclude this Ladakhi vignette, I turn to the description offered by the legendary birdman of India, Dr Salim Ali, of the Citrine wagtail: “Essentially a water wagtail, inseparable from marshland and grassy jheels. Numbers often seen on floating lotus leaves and vegetation on a tank, tripping along lightly in search of tiny insects, sometimes springing up into the air, and launching sprightly sallies in pursuit of escaping midges and other quarry.” No wonder, the sweet wagtail has been bestowed a dainty and aqueous vernacular name, Pani-ka-pilkya!

KAMAL KA FOOL

The Lotus spread at the regulator-end, Sukhna lake. (PHOTOS: VIKRAM JIT SINGH )
The Lotus spread at the regulator-end, Sukhna lake. (PHOTOS: VIKRAM JIT SINGH )

Walkers and tourists at the Sukhna lake would revel in the spectacle of brimming waters. But the regulator-end is besieged with the recurrent growth of lotus weed, which is spreading like an epidemic of chicken pox. The lotus has undertaken a further incursion to the rowing canal at the backwaters of the lake, which is earmarked as a migratory bird hotspot in winter and hosts the forest and wildlife department’s bird viewing post with binoculars, books and a spotting scope. But in recent winters, deep sheets of bird-less waters and galloping lotus is what the binoculars mostly pick up, much to the disappointment of avian lovers.

The lotus shrivels up in winter leading to a round of self-congratulation in the UT engineering department, which hires the manual labour to prune the weed from the top. Since the weed is not uprooted, the lotus blooms and spreads with a vengeance with the onset of summer. Manual removal is merely an exercise in window-dressing though lakhs of rupees drawn unquestioned from the public exchequer are expended in the annual exercise to “remove” the weed. Manual de-weeding is currently underway at the Sukhna in continuance of the practise for the past several years.

The lotus is not a favoured spot for most bird species as it tends to clog the wetland. Wetland birds are anyways missing at the Sukhna this summer because there are no shallow waters, marshes and sand banks for birds such as Black-winged stilts to breed. The lake seems a vast, solemn graveyard for bird life missing the cheery twitter. However, in those summers when the lake tends to dry up and silt is exposed harbouring enclaves of shallow water, the profusion of bird life is astounding. Most walkers, though, may pine for blank sheets of deep water!

If the Sukhna is to play a gracious host to birds and afford walkers their daily dose of rippling sheets of aqua blue, the lotus must go from its root, forever.

vjswild1@gmail.com

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