Wildbuzz: On wings of snow, dews of sunset, and more | columns | Hindustan Times
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Mar 22, 2018-Thursday
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Wildbuzz: On wings of snow, dews of sunset, and more

This winter, in keeping with the low migratory waterfowl numbers due to an unfavourable Sukhna habitat, the gulls, too, are fewer.

columns Updated: Jan 07, 2018 13:22 IST
Vikram Jit Singh
A Black-headed gull in non-breeding plumage at Sukhna Lake.
A Black-headed gull in non-breeding plumage at Sukhna Lake. (Gur Simrat Singh)


They are those wonderful snowy birds that we associate strongly with the sea, tailing luxury liners or flocking at ports and squabbling over food scraps and fish. They also settle on verdant Aussie cricket grounds and bag a few seconds of feathered fame on prime time. So, what are ‘sea gulls’ doing at the regulator-end of the deeply-inland Sukhna Lake?

Gulls summer breed in Ladakh, Central Asia to Europe and winter in rivers, inland lakes and coasts of the sub-continent’s warmer, southern latitudes. The current winter has sent Brown-headed and Black-headed gulls to Sukhna. The two species have regularly migrated to Sukhna in past winters along with the very large species, the Pallas’s gull, though the latter has not been observed at Sukhna in the 2017-18 winter. That said, it implies that three of the nine gull species observed across the Indian sub-continent do migrate to the Sukhna. However, this winter, in keeping with the low migratory waterfowl numbers due to an unfavourable Sukhna habitat, the gulls, too, are fewer.

The gulls may be ‘passage migrants’, ie, in transit further down south or west (and vice-versa in return migration due north) and will stay at the Sukhna for a brief period. Or, gulls may reside through the winter at the lake. They are best observed at the regulator-end where a trio spends the afternoons preening and basking on sluice pillars, and typically hungers for food scraps flung at migratory birds by irresponsible walkers and ‘animal/bird lovers’.


It was not that she was merely passionate about the Himalayas. She strove to deploy all the powers at her disposal to conserve Himalayan ecology so that the ages could, in continuity, be inspired by the majesty of the mountains and their sacred associations. She was, in a sense, redeeming India’s deep debt of gratitude to those looming, silent sentinels. “The Himalayas have shaped our history; they have moulded our philosophy; they have inspired our saints and poets. They influence our weather. Once they defended us; now we must defend them,” thus spoke the romantic naturalist and late Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, on May 15, 1968, at the Indian Mountaineering Foundation.

As climate change sweeps the noble Himalayas and glacial melt acquires hashtag status, will the eternal snows glistening gold and silver on peaks retreat to the confines of photographic memory? Will the wrinkles of premature ageing violate the snowline’s timeless sanctity and reveal balding peaks and, leave in penury’s wake, dehydrated plains? Will Himalayan ecology crumble into the fort-like ruins of glorious kingdoms of yore due to population, mega-dams, greed-based needs and litter?

Such thoughts agonise the mind when you come across pristine mountainscapes that take your breath away and besiege your soul with an intense urge to “go there”.

Himalayan explorer, qualified mountaineer, leopard watcher and birder, Sumit Shah, captured this image at Patal Bhuvaneshwar in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand. Tourists celebrated Christmas and New Year 2018 by stringing decorations from a fir tree branch and Shah framed that against lofty peaks piercing the azure skies. An expansive Himalayan vista offers eye-candy views from there, up to the Nepal ranges, and includes Trishul, Mrigthuni, Maiktoli, Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot and Panchachuli peaks.


They are truly worshippers of the Sun God. Just after 3.30pm, a grove of ‘Papri’ trees in the Sukhna Lake reserve forest is beset with a swarm of Striped Tiger butterflies. These ‘saffron’ pilgrims are searching for a roosting spot on a branch that affords a clear opening in the jungle canopy, westwards, to the sun’s dwindling benevolence. By 4.18pm on Friday afternoon, the butterflies had grouped together, folded wings and were as lifeless as dew drops on leaves. Nothing, just nothing, could shake them from that cold-induced comatose.

Till such time, as the late morning sun warms them, the gorgeous orange ‘dew drops’ melt and take flight over the hues of tawny jungle like marigolds liberated by the benediction of wings.During the few bright hours of sunshine at the Sukhna, the butterflies bask with wings spread wide, the black bands facilitating absorption of solar power.

This rare spectacle of butterflies roosting in the hundreds on trees in grape-like bunches is related to the fact that temperature dips much below their threshold level of 28 degrees centigrade. They are not congregating on ‘Papri’ trees because it is a host plant for the species. It is because the westwards-facing location and moderate height of ‘Papri’ trees affords a prime roosting opportunity. The butterfly swarms will demonstrate ‘site fidelity’ to that particular grove for the numbered days of their very short lives.