Drought in other habitats makes greater flamingos stay longer at Okhla sanctuary

The reason for their prolonged stay, according to foresters and ornithologists, is the lack of water and drought-like situation at their alternative sites.
A swarm of more than 150 Greater Flamingo has arrived at the national capital region’s Okhla Bird Sanctuary in Noida.(Ajay Aggarwal/HT PHOTO)
A swarm of more than 150 Greater Flamingo has arrived at the national capital region’s Okhla Bird Sanctuary in Noida.(Ajay Aggarwal/HT PHOTO)
Updated on Jun 09, 2019 02:56 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Noida | ByKushagra Dixit

The waters of the Okhla Bird Sanctuary have taken on a blush of colour, one that has been lingering longer than usual, with the greater flamingos deciding to stay put, the longest they have done so in the sanctuary so far.

The flamboyance of flamingos, from Kutch and Rajasthan, started reaching the Okhla sanctuary from November onwards for roosting and feeding. Their white plumage have taken on a near-perfect pink sheen — a sign that they have been getting good feed— rich algae and phytoplankton.

The reason for their prolonged stay, according to foresters and ornithologists, is the lack of water and drought-like situation at their alternative sites, in Rajasthan and elsewhere across the NCR, where the Greater flamingos species often roosts annually.

Currently, the shallow southeastern and the mid-yamuna region of the sanctuary are home to the flamboyance of about 150 to 200 greater flamingos, offering a breathtaking view of the blush pink birds against the blue-grey water this far out in June.

According to forest officials, the last such sighting was in May 2016-17, which came after the drought of 2015-16.

“This year, as lots of places such as Rajasthan have no water, the flamingos, which often search for shallow water where they can wade, couldn’t find places to roost. Okhla is one of the few options left for them in the region,” Neeta Shah, principal scientist, and flamingo expert at Bombay Natural History Society, told HT.

She said the salinity in the water of river Yamuna due to the pollution and the temporary influx of fresh water could have created the right conditions for algae and planktons to grow, and these are what flamingos feed on.

Greater flamingos are native to the Indian subcontinent, Africa and Sri Lanka, and adapt well to the higher temperatures in these regions.

The distinguishing feature of the greater flamingos is the pinkish-white plumage. Their wing coverts are mostly red, while the primary and secondary flight feathers are black. Forest officials said the birds have a pink bill with a black tip, and legs that are entirely pink. Their call is called a murmur, a bit like the honk of a goose.

According to the experts, after feeding in the shallow waters, they head back for breeding to Kutch in Gujarat, while a few make a beeline to Sambhar Lake in Rajasthan, and others to South Africa and Sri Lanka.

“Their major breeding ground is Kutch, like Vachharaj Bet in Little Rann of Kutch and Hanjado Bet in Great Rann of Kutch. They migrate elsewhere temporarily for food. Most of the northern region receive the birds that breed in Kutch and Rajasthan. The coastal areas and habitats such as Sewri in Maharashtra receive flocks from South Africa while Point Calimer in Tamil Nadu gets migrants from Sri Lanka,” Ashish Prashad, senior researcher and a flamingo expert at Wildlife Institute of India, said.

Known for nesting on mudflats (which are surrounded by water and also act as the first line of defence against predators) the greater flamingos breed from around June-end to August-end and lay eggs around October.

“If the region gets a good rain during monsoon, the greater flamingos also breed twice a year,” Shah said.

Experts pointed out that the pink plumage of the flamingoes, which appears after a good feed of algae, later helps the male attract females for breeding.

The species, except the birds with chicks, migrate to temporary habitats from November

“The greater flamingos have turned up in good numbers. It has been two years since we saw them in Okhla in such great numbers. Last year, the flamingos had given the sanctuary a miss,” Pramod Kumar Srivastava, divisional forest officer, said.

There are several hot spots of flamingos in India, with around six wetlands in the NCR that attract the greater flamingos to roost, experts said. However, of those six wetlands, it’s only the Okhla Bird Sanctuary and the Najafgarh Jheel where the birds are still being sighted.

“They are filter feeders. They stand in the shallow waters, dip their heads in the water and rake up the soil and then hold up their heads to filter their food by seeping out the waste through their beaks. So the richness of food is one factor for why they are staying put in Okhla,” Rahul Kaul of Wildlife Trust of India said. He added that not all flamingos breed, and given the present scenario, some juveniles might stay back even longer.

According to experts, it is, however, not a reason to rejoice as their prolonged stay also indicates that the wetlands elsewhere are in a bad shape.

“I would call this aberrant behaviour and not something to rejoice about, because by this time, they should be gone. But they are staying back and that indicates that other wetlands are in a poor shape or are being encroached upon as is the case with Basai near Gurugram,” eminent birdwatcher Bikram Grewal said.

Speaking of their local habitats, conservationist Ananda Banerjee also raised concerns over the lack of study on the local habitats of the flamingos and the algae, despite there being a healthy presence of both in the region.

“Okhla and Najafgarh are temporary microhabitats of the flamingos. They don’t breed here but migrate from one habitat to another to roost. But in case there is not enough water, they will naturally go where they can. However, there are no studies on the quality of algae which may affect these birds and their numbers in the long run,” Banerjee said.

According to bird expert Anand Arya, some of the prime habitats of greater flamingos are Okhla, Najafgarh, Dhanauri, Sultanpur, Jhajjhar, and Basai. However, sighting happens majorly in Okhla and Najafgarh.

“The Dadri wetland has been destroyed and the last sighting there was in 2009,” Arya, who lives in Noida, said.

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