India Nature: Kutch Backroads, An Essay, part III

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Thursday, March 15, 2007

My quest to see more birds continued, with Kutch Ecological Research Center (KERC) as my gracious hosts. But in my mind, the lamas kept whispering "see life as it is, whatever comes naturally." Naturally, I couldn't force any birds into my sights; I had to remain equanimous with whatever birds came my way, to live in an alpha state as it arose, to appreciate the beta state for what it was. What if no birds came my way? Well, then I could smell the mesquite burning in the hot desert air, drop onto my knees and lick the salt from the cracked silt of the Little Rann, and listen to the jackals howling at dusk. I would continue to look for birds, but not at the expense of everything else. After all, I had bought the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent as just a way to observe and explore nature while traveling, giving continuity and focus to the journey. And the Insects of the Indian Subcontinent, if it existed, was nowhere near portable in a backpack.

In the morning of March 9, I left with Hirjee, a young man who knew the back roads, and Mahadev, our dextrous yet farsighted elder driver, whose eyes shone behind his glasses. We began at the Tera Dhond or grassland, named a nature sanctuary only four months ago. "Even the local people don't know about it yet," Dr. Bhavesh Thakkar, director of KERC told me, realizing that a long-term education campaign lay ahead. A large flock of sheep grazed in the grassland, confirming the difficulty of nature conservation and environmental education in populated India. And the shepherd had a face, a name, a family. Combined with nearby Nalia Dhond, the two grasslands totaled over 10,000 acres, both named as part of the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary.

"There," said Hirjee, pointing to a female Indian Bustard in the distant short grasses. A male soon appeared out of the thorn scrub near our Mahindra Range Utility Vehicle, puffing his feathers in display to his consort. We watched as the couple disappeared together, as in a Bollywood movie, into the distance.

And, yes, I had mixed feelings about hiring a Utility Vehicle to trapse through the woods and shrubs looking for birds. In the end, I made an exception and justified the extravagance, perhaps erroneously, by thinking that my experiences and whatever might come from that would offset my carbon emissions. Don't two years with no car traveling via public transportation and walking 1,000 miles or so also count? While traveling, my carbon footprint had considerably diminished as I had renounced most comforts and conveniences of the road.

Our next stop was Soneri Hills, one place where the small White-naped Tit lives in open woodlands. Hirjee and I searched for hours, up and down the ridges of the hills. In my fifty rupee Indian foam sandals (my hiking boots were stolen in Bihar), the walking was accentuated, as thorns punctured the soft soles, pricking my feet. Birds flew from tree to tree, their wing beats audible in the silent late afternoon air, calling, identifying themselves as a White-eared or Red-vented Bulbul. Several times, a Grey-necked Bunting appeared, but no White-naped Tit. I attempted being impassionate and equanimous.

After all, the White-naped Tit was there, supposedly, and I didn't see it. Did that make me any less of a birdwatcher or an ecologist? Was this the feeling of reaching K-Mart aisle three and the jeans are sold out? Perhaps I wasn't being patient enough. Perhaps it passed behind me as I looked elsewhere. My bird list suffered: I wouldn't be able to find this rare bird somewhere else. I could only answer my thoughts by saying: "that's just the way it is."

Returning back to KERC Headquarters, I met Dr. Thakkar once again. He was concerned about not only ecological issues, but was also caring for the local villagers: "We serve 15,000 people in fifty villages," he said about the organization's medical practice. Why would an environmental organization, part of the Corbett Foundation be focusing on health care? The answers are that the community's health is interconnected with the health of the environment and that the local people are a large part of the solution to protecting their environment. They go hand-in-hand.

Similarly, environmental change and the community go hand-in-hand as it has since people moved to Kutch, whether it be earthquakes, a drying and warming climate, or a rising ocean. In order to survive here in the arid landscape, however, water is the lynchpin. Without clean water, the villages would not survive. Dr. Thakkar showed me an old water delivery system, consisting of three retaining tanks--one for livestock, one for washing, and one for drinking. Even in March, the tanks were full of water. The old hydrologists knew what they were doing. Contrast this with a new water system, which was empty, spelling trouble for nearby town.

At the same time, excessive irrigation of the cotton and other crops has led to saline water intrusion from the nearby oceans into the groundwater. "Today many farmers are moving away," said Dr. Thakkar, referring to the brackish ground water that now plagues their fields. The entire landscape is changing once again, with emigrating farmers, reflecting overuse and poor management of the land and water. Nature would restore a balance in the water, but it would take time to heal.

Dr. Thakkar and I also talked about invasive species. The distinctively American smell of mesquite filled my nostrils throughout Kutch. In 1900, as the forestry department watched the desert encroach useable grazing land, they introduced Mesquite (Prosopis juniflora) from the Americas as part of a Desert Immobilization Program. Despite creating new jobs and perhaps immobilizing the desert, the Mesquite, with its dense thorns and invasive qualities, has spread throughout Kutch, threatening grazing lands and native species of plants. Locals call Mesquite "gando baawal" translated as "mad weed" and the smell of mad weed was a bad omen for the upland ecology of Kutch.

In the morning, my quest continued at Nalia Dhond. Large eagles soared overhead in the distance as I struggled to see them through the glare. At this point, I could tell they were Aquilla eagles, based on their color patterns and size, but the Tawny, Steppe, and Spotted Aquilla eagles were too similar under the given lighting. Luckily, eagles were plentiful throughout the grasslands, so I was able to clearly identify both Tawny and Steppe eagles several times under better lighting conditions.

At Jackhau Port on the Arabian Sea, I tallied twenty-three new species for Kutch, including Bar-tailed Godwits in the mudflats. Amongst the overpowering stench of drying fish, I watched an Osprey fishing, dramatically diving into the Arabian Sea next to Jackhau's docked fishing fleet. The bird list for Kutch was now easily over 100 species.

Mahamod, my kind-hearted guide from Fulay Village who had learned his backyard birds, dropped to his knees on the baked and cracked earth, bowing a praying towards Mecca. A few minutes earlier, we were searching for passerines within the tall browning grasses nearby. In the morning, his lips smooched calls of the Grey Hypocolius towards the tall shrubs, hoping they would respond. They appeared, if only to eat a few small fruits from a nearby tree. "You are lucky," I told him as he smiled at the landscape around him, his home.

Our destination was Charri-Fulay Dhond, a vast lake, grassland, and silt flats complex in the north of Kutch. On the way, we found large owl pellets, climbed sandstone hills, and found three species of Wheatear along the dry silt flats.

The lake stretched before us, surrounded in wetland grasses that browned as the waters continued to evaporate the shrinking lake. In this water basin, the shrinking and swelling of the lake was a part of life, as fishermen cooked chapatis over a small fire in the shade of a shrub. After eating, one of them agreed to take me on the shallow lake, into the thick of it all. Soon, we were surrounded by Lesser and Greater Flamingoes, Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans, Common Coots, thousands of Common Cranes, and many dabbling ducks. The Common Cranes took to the air in vast flocks with a euphony in their language. "Fifty thousand," exclaimed Mahamod, reciting Forestry Department census figures.

I smiled at the boatman; he returned the smile. "Thank you," I said, truly grateful for this moment, for his strong and skillful rowing, his patience, his attitude. I gave the rowing a try, giving him a break, thinking about how I used to row in the gym back on Martha's Vineyard--how silly a rowing machine must seem to this man. The list increased by another twenty species.

Surrounding the lake, in the grasslands, large numbers of birds of prey filled the skies, many over-wintering in this remote location. A pair of Tawny Eagles engaged in a talon lock, spinning in the air towards the ground before separating and spreading their wings like performing sky divers at an air show opening their parachutes. "Aaahhh," exclaimed Mahamod. I was speechless.

In a small wooded canyon behind Than monastery, I was grateful for several hours of solitude. A peacock perched on a high sandstone promontory hang glided across the canyon, slicing through the morning air. I sat in silence, not moving, not saying anything, simply observing: the Red-rumped Swallows filter feeding in the air overhead, the female Asian Paradise Flycatchers flying from tree to tree, a Brown Rock-chat watching from a nearby rock. Fast-moving clouds mixed with the dark blue morning skies. For me, this felt right, as if the Jain deity Dhoramnath, who established the order of Kanphatas at Than, was sharing his meditation vibrations with me.

Back at baby blue- and white-washed Than monastery, where I had slept upstairs in their small one-room dharamsala, I walked around with Gaguba Virani, one of two elders. He showed me the Dhoramnath Temple, murals of Krishna and Shiva, and hidden bats, clues that this monastery accepted multiple faiths as well as a little piece of nature. Indeed, the Kanphatas--Baba Baboudnath, Choutu Shivaji, Gagubaji and others, all orphans--protected a key piece of nature in their backyard, simply by virtue of it being sacred.

Mahadev met me at 10 a.m. on March 12, to continue our birdwatching on the road. I kept my eyes peeled for Stoliczka's Bushchat, a rare chat found in the open shrublands of Kutch, stopping several times in suitable habitat to no avail. At the same time, though, a group of Alpine Swifts flew overhead, with their distinctive white belly contrasting with black covering their sickle-shaped wings, tail, and head. The bird count now stood at 145 species.
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