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May 22, 2019-Wednesday
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Wildbuzz | These birds of forsaken lands and a tryst with tipsy

Their summer birding yielded such rarities as the first sighting in India of the Pectoral sandpiper on May 10, 1998. As also, the Sykes nightjar downstream of Harike barrage and breeding Oriental pratincoles in the huge pond of Gurdwara Rababsar.

punjab Updated: May 28, 2017 15:15 IST
Vikramjit Singh
Vikramjit Singh
Hindustan Times
Winter habitat of the Güldenstädt’s redstart in Spiti valley.(Photo: HS Sangha)


An overwhelming majority of bird-watchers will not tour the Harike wildlife sanctuary in scorching summer as deep winter is the time to observe migratory species. But Jaipur-based Harkirat S Sangha teamed up with famed Swedish birder, Per Undeland, and toured Harike in scorching May and June in the late 1990s. Their summer birding yielded such rarities as the first sighting in India of the Pectoral sandpiper on May 10, 1998. As also, the Sykes nightjar downstream of Harike barrage and breeding Oriental pratincoles in the huge pond of Gurdwara Rababsar. Sangha tours Rajasthan’s deserted, drying, burning Sambhar lake in summer and has recorded there such unusual coastal birds as the Grey and Golden plovers. The deserted, high-altitude regions of Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh in winter constitute the other extreme of Sangha’s esoteric birding forays.

A male redstart. ( Photo: HS SANGHA )

Sangha and his companions, Somendra Singh, CV Singh and Sahdev Singh, stole into snow-bound Spiti valley in February 2017. “One gets to see those species, which come down in winter from the very high, harshest regions but don’t go further down beyond the snowline. There are few research papers on these high-altitude specialist species,’’ Sangha told this writer. The highlights of Sangha’s Spiti tour, apart from observations of the Snow leopard, were large assemblages of Güldenstädt’s redstart, named after a German naturalist/explorer of the 18th century, Johann A Güldenstädt. A welcome departure from the domination of British ornithologists over bird names!

Sangha observed the Güldenstädt’s redstart surviving on remnant berries of Sea buck-thorn thickets (Hippophae rhamnoides) or ‘Leh berry’, which are also processed and packaged as an exotic, nutritious juice. Sangha and his companions submitted a note on Güldenstädt’s redstart based on their tour to the reputed scientific journal, ‘Indian Birds’ this month.

The Güldenstädt’s is the largest redstart species of the upper montane areas of the Caucasus and Central Asia to Central China, breeding above the treeline on open dry, rocky or barren hillsides and winters in similar habitat at lower altitudes. Interestingly, while the author, Otto Pfister, observed Güldenstädt’s specimens in Ladakh as wary and shy, Sangha found those encountered in the Spiti winter as ‘quite tame’.


CAPTION: Tipsy asleep in Jyotsna’s hand as a pup; (centre) with Col. Rajbir S. Gill (retd.) as a young mother; and (right) relishing honey milk from a dropper as a pup. ( PHOTOS: JYOTSNA GILL )

I doubt if there was any family privileged to a life of bungalows and gardens that did not have a fond squirrel episode to narrate. The Five-striped palm squirrel common to our region is a creature that readily dispenses with reticence and modesty once indulged by humans. A lazy winter lunch in the lawns is regaled by the antics of squirrels darting about our feet and habituated to a flurry of tidbits flung from the table.

But unfortunately, sometimes, squirrel pups fall out of nests before they turn adult and pesky. The forlorn pups, if lucky, may find the comforting arms of saviours such as Jyotsna Gill, a schoolteacher residing in Chandigarh’s Sector 36 and married to an Army officer from the Punjab Regiment. The couple have rescued injured kites and owls and are currently playing foster ‘Naani-Naana’ (grandparents) to a family of squirrels. Jyotsna traces her passion for nature to her birth in the verdant environs of Dehradun, where her father - an officer commissioned into the Regiment of Artillery - had a house nestling in forest and river.

‘’We picked up this squirrel pup from our Sector-36 kitchen garden when it fell down from the nest a few months ago. Knowing very well that squirrels are mammals, I tried various concoctions like thinned milk, diluted groundnut paste and porridge but in the end, she settled for honey milk, which was sucked lustily from a dropper. We converted an old shoe box - cushioned with cotton wool - into Tipsy’s new nest, but most of the times, she would crawl into my hands when I cupped them like a nest and sleep there till time for the next feed,” she said.

“After a month, Tipsy became very naughty and started to enjoy a lot of foods. Cooked salted potatoes, ‘kari chawal’ and ice-cream were favourites. Then we released Tipsy into our kitchen garden where she spends the day climbing trees with other squirrels but in the evening comes back inside to sleep in her cosy nest made out of stolen cotton wool cap and woollen sock! Our Tipsy, a few days back, turned a mom herself of three fat little babies, all lying secure in their cosy nest in our bed box,” Jyotsna told this writer.

Naani and Naana Gill will face a complex challenge in coming weeks: how to wean the multiplying squirrels off the human imprint and safety of indoors, and rehabilitate them in the garden’s wilderness.


First Published: May 28, 2017 15:02 IST