I was on an eco-adventure this weekend. Except that it wasn’t eco-nomy, it was eco-logy..I had taken it on myself to participate in the Bird Fest happening in Pune (thanks to Nature Walk Charitable Trust) this weekend and it was, quite literally, a lark of an event!
The fest started with a photography exhibition, and went on to host 2 birding events, lots of talks by reputed ornithologists and interactions with forest conservation officers. As the first day rolled into the other and as the avian delights opened up in front of my eyes and in my untrained mind, I was experiencing the unrestrained joy that only and only nature in all her splendour can deliver.
Our first birding trip was to humble, good old, plumb-spang in the middle of the city Vetal Hills. Sceptical as I was (“What kind of birds can you observe near Senapati Bapat Road, for heavens’ sake”), I did decide to wake up early on a nippy morning (around 9 degrees is my guess) and fortified with a strong cup of coffee, headed towards where the rendezvous was supposed to begin. I was pleasantly surprised to see a group of around 50 odd people, all age groups, waiting patiently in semi-darkness for our group guide to begin the walk. 50 in a population of about 50 lakhs, my economic instinct came out in the early morning, even as my eyes watered in the cold weather. Okay, given that this is one of the youngest cities in the country, let us assume that about 15% of the population, around 7 lakhs could be less than 15 years old. Another 8 lakhs senior citizens. Another 20 lakhs economically not well-off and hence, not attuned to nature. That still leaves 15 lakh people who must have read all the advertisements and articles about the fest, of which there were 50 people who thought of taking a small hike in the morning. That’s a 50/15,00,000 chances of finding a bird lover in Pune, no wonder the birding population is dwindling…
I was jerked out of my statistical musings when our guide announced that the experts had arrived. Mr. Kiran Purandare and Mr. Girish Jathar were the 2 experts who would literally walk us through the jungle trail, enabling us to understand the sights and sounds that the avian species offered to the Punekars. There were a few basic instructions before beginning the trail. The first was to..just..listen. As we all stopped talking, there was a sudden twittering in the trees above..the call of a fly catcher. I realized for the first time, as our guides talked, that there is a time-table to nature. As the morning dawns, the bats go back to roost before the first bird can twitter. Very often, specific avian species get up before the others do, without the help of the swanky alarms and the snooze option.
We must have walked hardly 30 steps when Dr. Jathar pointed to a completely wilted tree. Humans have often thought that such trees should be immediately utilized towards fuel needs. But birds think differently. At the very top of the tree was a very small hole, out of which was peeping a copper-smith barbett chick, awaiting mommy’s return. And soon enough, hurrah! Mommy returned, with a delicious snack! As she reached inside the hole to her little one, I connected…perhaps, mother to mother. Perhaps, mammalia to aves. I don’t know..but I was filled with a profound sense of happiness, sudden tears of don’t-know-what-or-why forming in my eyes, in the midst of a group of total strangers, who too were looking misty-eyed and awed by what we were witnessing and suddenly didn’t feel like strangers at all. Oh, look, a shikra! Someone said suddenly and we moved, physically and emotionally, from motherhood to…royalty. This magnificent hunter (Accipeter Badius) was perched haughtily in a tree, looking down on us, a motley group of humans…I could almost hear the strains of “The circle of life” as I stared at King Accipeter Mufasa on his throne. A shikra is uniquely adapted to jungle hunting, explained our guides. His wings have a curvature on the ends that allow him to manoeuvre through the jungle trees; the kite, which is regularly sited in the city, can only swoop in the open since his span is bigger and straight. So, this is THE hunter in this forest. As we hiked up the hill trail, which by the way, is bewitching and simply wonderful, the jungle thickened. The twittering and chirping too increased and we could hear several birds having a literal mehfil! We saw a black drongo, shining in the morning sun. The drongo is called as the “kotwal”, which means a police officer, in Marathi. That is because he is so fiercely protective of his nest; he even has been known to take on an eagle at times, just because the fellow dared to swoop in too close to his precious chicks! A lot of smaller birds hence, roost around the drongo…quite a party, this one. Some of the drongo cousins are excellent mimics and with a drongo around, it becomes quite difficult to understand whether the call comes from the real bird, or whether its just a drongo joke on the forest. And then, there was a purple sunbird! With a long beak, it has a tongue that functions like a straw and allows it to suck nectar from the flowers. However, its different from its richer hummingbird cousin…it can hover and suck but is devoid of flying backwards. Another with a long tongue that is curled inside like a chameleon is the woodpecker. Once it pecks through the wood and finds the insects, its tongue is rolled out to devour the snack. And once we had climbed up quite a bit, there was a magnificent peacock pair, roosting in a tree deep down in the valley. There is an old stone quarry which has become a wetland site atop the hill and we could see teals and stilts floating around the place peacefully.
By the time we came back, there was considerable amount of sharing of binocs, cameras, pictures, phone numbers, people slipping and falling over the rocks and others helping them, old people who needed a hand, sassy youngsters comparing notes, Marathi speaking people patiently giving the local names to the non-Marathi ones…there was a lot of bonhomie in what had been a complete group of strangers a couple of hours ago. Of course, the basic bonding was the ones which the birds had given us. Once we all got down safely, we got to interact with the local forest officer who gave us information about the bird racing event that would be flagged off in Pune!
The idea is that wetlands in Pune are favoured breeding destinations for a lot of migratory birds and the forest department came up with the idea of dividing the wetlands into 16-odd areas. Teams would be sent to do a full-day observation at these sites and would literally race to spot more diversity and would try to estimate the numbers of birds that flocked to the sites on that day. (Tougher than the CSO’s job of “imputing” the GDP of India, I thought sympathetically) Over a period of time, this data could perhaps help to gauge the changes in the demography of the migratory birds that visit Pune. How wonderful!
In the evening, we had a superb bird communication session with Kiran Purandare. Difference between calls and songs, superb imitations of many many species, seasons and areas in which the songs can be heard..it was a terrific experience. He also taught us whistling and there I was, in the middle of strangers again, whistling away as loudly as my laughing companions were. There was an extremely sweet presentation by a 12-year old who managed to save some crag martins’ nests in his colony. And then, a wonderful talk by Dr. Yardi on the avian diversity around Jayakwadi and the encroachment issues. Another talk the next day by Dr. Bharadwaj on the bio-diversity issues of the sanctuaries in Rajasthan too was stimulating and breached topics socially and morally difficult to solve.
The population of foxes in Rajasthan is a threat to the seriously endangered Great Indian Bustard. So, can we “move” this population elsewhere? Should we shoot a man-eating leopard or try to save him? The high level of fertilizers in the land that moves into the wetlands causes the hyacinths and mosses to grow more rapidly. This attracts the birds of a particular type to the wetland at the cost of other birds which are divers or prefer clear water habitats. Animal breeding and grazing is a chief occupation of many communities. So can we really enclose grasslands to protect a certain kind of species at the cost of human livelihood?
As an economist, I am trained to understand economic distribution issues through the concept of Pareto optimalities. Simply put, a Pareto optimal outcome is one wherein no one can be made better off without making someone else worse off. When Vilfredo Pareto had broached this issue that the income distribution in Italy could be subjected to a “Pareto improvement” i.e. plenty could be made better off without the others really sacrificing their life-style, the then-on-the-throne Fascists had not taken to it kindly. Pareto vs. The Fascists. Nature vs. Man.
Are we such Homo Fasciens, that we cannot give a better lifestyle, a Pareto improvement to the others such as Pisces and Aves? I somehow went back mentally to my all-time favorite George Orwell. The Orwellian conclusion could well have been that “the avians above looked from Homo Sapiens to Homo Fasciens, and back again, but already it was difficult to say which was which. But despite my fasc-ination for him, I don’t want to be an Orwell tonight. Not after such a wonderful weekend. I am rooting for a Pareto improvement. I hope, Homo Sapiens, you are too.