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Wildbuzz | Fliers sans parachutes and veins of blue blood

In the metaphorical sense, can anyone be braver than a bird flying thousands of miles across savage seas and lonesome peaks or rows of lurking hunters without a parachute to break the fall if a bullet or natural calamity wings them?

punjab Updated: Jan 29, 2017 13:00 IST
Vikram Jit Singh
Vikram Jit Singh
Hindustan Times
wildbuzz,Bar-headed geese,canals
A Bar-headed goose neck-tagged, H52, was photographed on the Satluj (Harike) on December 4, 2016. It was trapped and tagged at Pong dam in March 2011 by the BNHS. (PHOTO: GAURAV MADHOPURI)


In the metaphorical sense, can anyone be braver than a bird flying thousands of miles across savage seas and lonesome peaks or rows of lurking hunters without a parachute to break the fall if a bullet or natural calamity wings them? Scientists engaged with the epic journey of birds have come to a better understanding of their paths, powers of flight endurance and breeding grounds by deploying satellite tags and coloured/numbered neck collars to track charismatic species such as Bar-headed geese.

This effort has been facilitated by roving bird-watchers as finding tagged specimens is akin to bagging a rarity and elevates the hobby from a pastime to participation in a scientific project. Martin Gilbert of the Wildlife Conservation Society conducted a seminal study by tagging geese in Mongolia that migrated to India. “By marking migratory geese, we hoped to collect information on the places that were important to them as a first step to ensuring their survival,” Gilbert told this writer.

His Indian counterpart, Dr S Balachandran, is a deputy director at Bombay Natural History Society, and has conducted multiple studies to tag and track Bar-headed geese, which are the world’s highest flying birds.“We find that geese migrating to Pong dam and downstream on the Satluj/Beas, etc are from breeding grounds in Ladakh/Tibet. On the other hand, geese that migrate to Assam, Karnataka, Maharashtra, etc are from breeding grounds in China/Mongolia,” Dr Balachandran told this writer. Nearer home, his assessment indicates that geese migrating to Sukhna Lake/Motemajra breed in Ladakh/Tibet.


The canals on the roads from Morinda to Chamkaur Saheb and (right) from Morinda to Khamano. ( DARSHAN SIDHU PHOTOGRAPHY )

If you can somehow scissor thin strips from an azure sky and paste them on earth, how would they look when viewed from the heavens above? Darshan Singh Sidhu’s images of canals capture Punjab’s blue veins and trigger nostalgia. They evoke – in a mystical, indescribable way – the works of the great pastoral painters of 19th century Europe. Canal eco-systems brim with fauna, flora and trees: all graceful, few bowing to water’s passage like knights to a queen’s carriage, others ramrod straight like regimental cavaliers of the President’s bodyguard.

Old shikaris recall that half-a-day’s shoot along particular canals could bag 25 Grey and Black partridges (francolins). There were plenty of Indian hares, too, darting about in the rich scrub that spilled down slopes. But partridges have dwindled drastically, and hare numbers are falling. Similarly, efforts to make canals ‘pucca’ such as the Bist Doaba canal by clearing trees, have resulted in mass mortality for roosting and nesting birds. Notable species observed on canal trees include fishing/eagle/scops owls, Red-naped ibis, woodpeckers, weaver birds, etc. On the positive side, wild boars, sambar and the occasional leopard have sought refuge in the ‘beris’ or groves along canals though some of them die after falling in canals.

Seepage from canals created marshes and ponds, especially in Haryana, where migratory waterfowl and neelgais dwell, along with spillover canal fish. “My studies show that canals facilitated migration of more than 20 species of exclusively Himalayan fish fauna to western Rajasthan, such as Raiamus bola. When canals are desilted, we find species such as Fresh water eels and Loach residing along the bottom, while other species migrate with the fast flow,” Professor emeritus of fisheries, MS Johal, told this writer.

However, the Indira Gandhi Canal Project, whose waters flow from Punjab, gave rise to afforestation/plantations and seepage wetlands in Rajasthan that disadvantaged desert-specialist species such as Great Indian/Houbara bustards, Imperial sandgrouse, White-browed bushchat, etc, while generalist species (herons, Common/Demoiselle cranes) were net gainers.


A butterfly that appears similar to the Siren species (Nymphalids) sips ice from a cup of coke in Hoshiarpur; and (right) a Common nawab butterfly sipping Kingfisher beer in the Shivalik foothills behind Chandigarh. ( PHOTOS: NAVDEEP SINGH )

Butterflies and moths indulge in mud-puddling on river banks, dung and carrion etc, in droves enabling males to extract sodium and provide mates with a nuptial gift. The female then diverts a significant portion of sodium to her eggs. But distinct from the garnering of sodium and other minerals, some butterflies possess a “sweet tooth” and do not refuse the offer of a chilled coke or beer, or just kind of help themselves! Two outstanding photographs caught my eye and I sought guidance from India’s butterfly man and author, Isaac Kehimkar, who is a deputy director at the Bombay Natural History Society. “Butterflies, especially the Nymphalids (brush-footed butterflies), have weakness for sweet, sugary liquids and love fermenting fruits. Similarly, beer is a favourite for Nawabs/Rajahs butterflies as it has a high sugar content and boosts energy levels,” said Kehimkar.


First Published: Jan 29, 2017 12:59 IST