Dr. Salim Ali, the well-known ornithologist and naturalist, was christened as the ‘Birdman of India’ since he popularized bird watching in India. Did you know that there is a bird sanctuary named after him in the heart of Pune city? It was established in 1973, by city-based ecologist the late Prakash Gole and was inaugurated by Dr. Salim Ali himself.
More than 110 different bird species have been reportedly spotted at the Dr. Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary in Pune. Located on the banks of the Mula-Mutha river it has a fair share of both aquatic and other avian beauties and is home to even butterflies. With so many aces up its sleeve, it is a must-visit for every bird watcher local as well as a visitor to Pune. When we moved to Pune seven years ago, this bird sanctuary was on my husband’s wish list as he is a trained ornithologist and photographer.
“Gunjan Cinema… next to the Hindu Smashan Bhumi” were the landmarks near the sanctuary that he was told to look out for. On his first visit, he didn’t venture into the actual bird park as there were no signages to guide. (Subsequently, signboards have been put in place with the help of local volunteers.) No ticket counter or information booth was in sight. It didn’t help that a garbage dump and crematorium seemed unlikely neighbours to a bird sanctuary. He was contended spotting and clicking aquatic birds from the patio of the crematorium facing the Mula-Mutha river and headed home. “But there surely must be more,” he thought and soon got in touch with a group of bird watchers who frequented the park.
So, turns out one needs to take a left from the smashan bhumi and there was the entrance to the Dr. Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary- a green overgrowth and parallel to its right flowed the river. After walking a hundred metres, one needs to take a right and head to the riverbank to see aquatic birds. One can see few islands in the middle of the river, where maximum aquatic bird sightings are possible. Soon weekend mornings had been earmarked by Rafiq to visit the sanctuary and capture the birds in his frame. He had even joined hands with volunteers of “Friends of Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary” which is trying to save and revive the bird sanctuary from neglect. Through them, Rafiq even led several bird-watching trails where bird enthusiasts and school students were introduced to the rich biodiversity of the sanctuary.
The bird sanctuary has been in the news lately because of the new metro construction project that will cut through the sanctuary. This will endanger the delicate ecosystem that is home to diverse flora and fauna. To add to its troubles was the illegal felling of 500 trees by a real estate firm. A human chain was also formed to draw the attention of the municipal and civic authorities to the neglect the bird sanctuary was receiving.
The children and I never managed to visit the sanctuary not until recently when the lockdown was eased. We were dying to take a walk in some greenery where the possibility of human contact would be the minimum. As we entered the smashan bhumi, an ambulance stood, and an eerie feeling gripped us. What if the deceased was a patient who had succumbed to the virus? We almost wanted to exit, but my husband assured us that once inside the sanctuary, we would forget our fears and be at ease with nature.
As we entered the Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, Rafiq explained how he had spotted several Baya Weaver nests on one of his previous visits, on a trail to the left. The male Baya Weaver painstakingly makes the nest with an opening at the bottom. The female then comes to inspect the nest and only after her approval do, they mate and breed. He recalled watching a female come to check the nest weaved by the male. It was poignant to see the female reject the nest, and the male feel dejected by her disapproval.
Indian Grey Hornbills are usually found as soon as you enter the bird sanctuary. Hornbills generally form monogamous pairs and nest in the cavities of tall trees which are in plenty at the sanctuary. Once the pair select the nest, usually a hollow in a tree, they undergo an exciting breeding habit. The female hornbill locks herself within the hollow and covers the opening with mud, barks, faeces, saliva. She ensures to leave a small opening through which the male hornbill provides food collected to the mother and young ones. During this period, both the female and young ones are entirely dependent on the male for their survival until the juveniles reach a mature state. If the male bird dies during this breeding season, it will also result in the unfortunate death of the female and young ones.
Rafiq advised us to follow the golden rule of bird watching “Be aware of the sound before the sight of the bird.” As we walked through the green trail, butterflies fluttered around us, and we could hear numerous bird calls. The best would be to head to the riverbanks was what Rafiq suggested, and we followed suit. While walking near the banks of the Mula-Mutha river, the jarring incessant trill ‘ki…ki…ki’ of the White-throated Kingfisher drew our attention to it. The chestnut brown bird with electric blue back and upper wings and a dash of white across its throat was a sight to behold. Predominantly found near the water, it occasionally dives for fish, but mostly looks for frogs, tadpoles, and water insects.
The sun rays set the river glitter and sparkle like stars. Hyacinth had overgrown and floated on the river as crows and mynas sitting on it got a joy ride. Hyacinths increase the carbon dioxide content of the river and consequently negatively impact the survival of aquatic life. We recalled how the local activists had joined hands with NGOs earlier, to clean the river on several occasions. But this exercise needs to be done regularly by the local municipal authorities.
On the island, in the middle of the river, was a congregation of birds basking in the sun. Purple and Grey Herons waited patiently for fish to come in range while a colony of Indian Cormorants and Little Cormorants with black body and long hooked narrow bill basked along the island. Painted Storks nestled on overgrowth and occasionally peeped through the vegetation. They get their name from the distinct pink tertial feathers. These large wading birds wade through and stir the water with their feet to flush hiding fish. They dip their half open beaks in water and move them from side to side, snapping up their prey of small fish.
Spot-billed Ducks, Common Coots, Sandpipers and Purple Swamphens were spotted the most. The male Spot-billed Duck has a red spot on the base of the bill, and in-flight, one can see the green speculum with a white band at the bottom. They are also called Dabbling Ducks since they mainly forage on the water surface rather than diving. One can also spot Brahminy Shelducks, also called Ruddy Shelduck, which is considered sacred by Buddhists. These are migratory birds from Europe and Central Asia which make a loud nasal honking call and are always found in pairs loyal to each other perhaps for life. Garganey Ducks, rare and migratory shy birds coming from Europe, have also been spotted here. Another rare bird sighted is the Black Crown Night Heron which stands still, waits and watches to ambush its prey of fish and insects. The other birds spotted on the island and banks were Lesser Whistling Ducks, Little Grebe, Pond Herons, Terns, Waterhens, Wagtails
Near the nala/canal which joins the river one can see a big colony of Black-headed Ibis which likes to nibble for food in the marshes and soft mud. A small colony of Red-naped Ibis with a dark head, crimson red warty skin on the crown and nape were also spotted here.
As we soaked in the beauty of this aquatic ecosystem, the call of the Red-wattled Lapwing drew our attention. This brown, black and white bird with distinctive red, fleshy wattles above its eyes stands tall on its yellow legs. It is known for its loud alarm call that sounds like “Did you do it?” or “Pity to do it.” They are ground birds, even laying their eggs there. On noticing a threat, it circles over it and even dives at it.
We were so engrossed in watching the drama of the aquatic birds unfold in front of us that we almost forgot about the birds on the trees. A kite circled the sky and perched on a tree, joining almost 7-8 other companions. We were amazed to see so many kites on a single tree. Another predator that is sometimes sighted here is the Shikra. Its name has been derived from the word, ‘shikari’, meaning hunter- a title well deserved since it is the apex predator in the urban bird ecosystem.
Having satisfied ourselves with the aquatic water birds and sightings near the riverbank, we then decided to explore the green overgrowth. Wild mynas were chatting on a tree. My husband on earlier visits has spotted Coppersmith Barbets, Green Bee-Eaters and Tickle Blue Flycatcher’s here. The Coppersmith Barbet is a small green bird with a distinctive bright red patch on its forehead and chest. Its metallic ‘tuk-tuk-tuk’ call which can go on for a long time is likened to a coppersmith striking his hammer. The bird nests in holes chiselled in trees with deadwood.
The Green Bee Eater’s plumage is bright green with a dash of light brown on the crown and a thin black stripe around its neck. These little birds can be spotted perched on twigs or cables, always alert, ready to take off after flying insects like bees, wasps, flies and grasshoppers. My husband recalled spotting a Green Bee-Eater posing like the fastest man Usan Bolt’s victory pose.
Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher is one of Rafiq’s favourite birds. This tiny, active, colourful bird has a lovely metallic musical call. We first saw this bird a few years back on our trip to Bandipur. It is blue on the upperparts while its throat and breast are rufous in colour. It was sighted in the densest scrub of the park, and we were lucky to get the right pose.
Some of the other birds spotted here are the Brahminy Starling, Oriental White-Eye, Indian Golden Oriole and Purple rumped Sunbird. Brahminy Starling is a monogamous bird, and its English name refers to its Brahmini choti hairstyle. The species name Sturnia pagodarum is thought to be based on the occurrence of the species on buildings and temple pagodas in Southern India. The Oriental White-Eye is a small white and yellow bird which has a distinctive white ring around its eyes. They forage in groups, sucking nectar and devouring small insects.
Indian Golden Oriole is a beautiful bird with a bright yellow body, black feathers, with a black stripe through the eye giving it a masked appearance, and the fleshy pink bill. My husband had sighted it perched on a Rosy Trumpet (Pink Poui) tree canopy making a fluty melodious “pee-lo-lo… pee-lo-lo” call.
He reminisced watching a Purple rumped Sunbird in eclipse plumage enjoying insects that a spider had collected in its web. Was the Sunbird smart or lazy? He felt sorry for the spider whose efforts of painstakingly collecting insects had gone waste.
White-browed Fantail with its dark brown upperparts, white spots on the wings, and whitish underparts is very common in the bird sanctuary. It is often seen fanning its tail as it moves through the undergrowth.
Asian Koels notorious for sneaking and laying eggs in crows’ nests are also seen here. Koels have been the muse of great poets, and songwriters in Bollywood and their songs are associated with rains. It’s the male Koel who sings beautifully.
One can even spot the Greater Coucal or Crow Pheasant a large bird that resembles a crow but has copper-coloured wings and an underside tinged with purple. Other distinguishing features are its ruby-red eyes and a longer tail. The Greater Coucal, although a member of the avian cuckoo order, does not share the infamous cuckoo practice of laying its eggs in other birds’ nests. Since it’s a weak flier, it is frequently found scavenging the ground for food. In most parts of India, the Coucal or Bhardwaj is considered as a good omen. Sighting the bird or hearing its call on the eve of departure is believed to bring good luck to a journey.
As we walked through the green trail, we saw something slither on the ground. Was it a snake? On closer examination, we realized that a thousand worms were moving synchronously, giving the illusion of a large snake. This is a survival technique that the worms undertake to protect themselves from predators which might think it’s a larger animal and refrain from attacking.
The Spotted Owlet although a nocturnal creature can sometimes be seen in the bird sanctuary during the daytime. Owls as predators help maintain a balance in our ecosystem by keeping the rodent and insect population in check. These nocturnal birds have a misplaced reputation in many cultures of being a bad omen which needs to change since they play a vital role in the ecosystem.
A couple of hours in the bird sanctuary had made us forget about the pandemic and its stresses. Bird watching is an exercise in mindfulness where one is rooted in the present moment. Neither the regrets of past nor the uncertainty of the future matter as one is only conscious of the ‘now.’ As we exited the bird sanctuary, we saw a rainbow which we prayed would bring the bird sanctuary some luck from the years of neglect that it has suffered. We dreaded imagining how the metro construction would cut through the Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary and destroy the fragile ecosystem. For a city which is rapidly becoming a concrete jungle, the bird sanctuary is a green haven which needs to be saved at all costs. To put in Dr. Salim Ali’s words, “I suppose I have done my bit, it’s now up to you younger people.”