Smoking chimneys, soaring cranes

Print edition : May 18, 2012

Great white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) in the blue waters of the Khijadiya bird sanctuary. They float and move gracefully in tandem, as if obeying the invisible baton of a conductor.-Great white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) in the blue waters of the Khijadiya bird sanctuary. They float and move gracefully in tandem, as if obeying the invisible baton of a conductor.

Wildlife thrives in the unique ecosystem of Khijadiya, disregarding the frenetic industrial activity in nearby Jamnagar.

JAMNAGAR in Gujarat seems an unlikely location for a bird sanctuary or a marine national park. The capital of a former princely state known as Nawanagar, the city is located in the Gulf of Kutch, an arid belt abutted by the Arabian Sea. Virtually untouched by British architectural and cultural legacy, Jamnagar is dotted with dilapidated palaces, crumbling structures and effete edifices, all painted in deep red and quite distinctive. Its outskirts, once a pristine wilderness, host a forest of towers, stacks, columns and buildings, all reaching out to the skies and spewing vapours and smoke. Jamnagar is home to two petroleum refineries, one of which is the world's largest. These are fed by a continuous stream of ocean liners called very large crude carriers (VLCC) that bring crude oil from halfway around the world and disgorge it into a pipeline or tanker to be sent to the refineries where they are cracked into all those products without which modern life would be unimaginable. Beside the refineries, there are assorted other industries, such as fertilizer and chemical industries and power plants, lining the highway. One would have thought that with so much of industrial activity, Jamnagar would have scared all wildlife away.

A HERONRY IN Khijadiya. The freshwater marshes are replete with bulrushes, shrubs and tall grass.-

But, considering that the Gulf of Kutch is home to a unique ecosystem, wildlife that thrives in such an environment has little choice but to adapt and carry on. How else would you explain the presence of thousands of migratory and local birds at Khijadiya, a bird sanctuary just 12 kilometres from Jamnagar city? Or the versatile marine life that populates the 42 islands off the Kutch coast? In fact, these islands are so special that you can literally walk on the sea floor when the tide recedes to lay bare its rich and diverse marine life. Stranded for a few hours, the creatures stay trapped in ankle-deep and knee-deep water where they can forage for plankton and other succulent nutrients until the sea returns to claim them back. Migratory birds flock to these islands to feast on these creatures as well as the plankton. The eternal cycle of life plays itself out in this unique landscape, disregarding the frenetic industrial activity all around. That the Gulf of Kutch is a rare combination of saltpans, rivers, desert, freshwater lakes, and the sea makes it irresistible to these creatures as well as to the migratory birds that come from West Asia to nest and raise their young.

THE GREEN SEAWEED on the sea floor in Narara island visible during low tide.-

Our first destination is Khijadiya. The road to Khijadiya cuts across emerald wheat fields ripe with swaying crop. As you enter the park, you notice that on one side is a saltwater lake and on the other, marshes replete with bulrushes, shrubs and tall grass. There are also many freshwater ponds scattered throughout the 605-hectare national park.

A starfish.-

Khijadiya attracts winged visitors of all kinds aquatic birds that thrive in freshwater lakes and those frequenting saltpans, such as flamingos. This park was not known to many until a few years ago although the renowned ornithologist Salim Ali, who visited the spot in 1984, sighted 104 species of birds on a single day.

A tiny crab.-

In November 2010, Khijadiya played host to the Global Birdwatchers Conference. Nearly 100 delegates from 45 countries attended it and held discussions with more than 300 Indian bird lovers and experts. Ever since, the sanctuary's visibility has increased tremendously. Of the more than 250 species of migratory waterbirds found here, some are unique and rare while others are common birds such as herons, ducks, storks, ibises, spoonbills, flamingoes, egrets, pelicans and cormorants. Black ibis, black-winged kite, brahminy kite, pheasant-tailed jacana, great thick-knee, common greenshank, grey francolin, imperial eagle, Indian pond heron, little tern, black-tailed godwit, comb duck, common crane, common teal, garganey, marsh harrier, northern pintail, shoveler, Eurasian wigeon, pale harrier, demoiselle crane, sanderling, darter the checklist in the Khijadiya Interpretation Centre is long. We manage to spot around 30 species, and we are by no means experts on the subject.

A puffer fish.-

As you enter the park, you are treated to the delightful acrobatics of a kingfisher diving for its dinner. Only a moment ago, the bird was perched on a branch, preening itself with apparent disinterest. In the twinkling of an eye, the kingfisher returns with a catch in its long beak and settles down to savour its meal. A marsh harrier watches with feigned unconcern. In a moment, it too dives into the bushes and emerges with a lizard dangling from its curved beak. The pond in the foreground is crowded. Herons, egrets, cormorants and cranes are busy catching their last meal of the day. Their wings glint in the evening light while their raucous calls shatter the silence. Nilgai (Indian antelope, also known as the blue bull) graze placidly in the slopes of the pond, their outlines silhouetted against the evening sun.

We discard our vehicle and choose to walk. Climbing atop an observation tower, we are rewarded by an indescribably beautiful sight a massive colony of great white pelicans floating gracefully and moving in tandem, as if obeying the invisible baton of a conductor. We stand mesmerised by this wonderful sight against the backdrop of distant water tanks and factory chimneys.

The Khijadiya lakes are formed by reclamation bunds, which were built during the erstwhile princely state regime. After Independence, these bunds were repaired and strengthened to prevent salinity ingress. On one side of the bunds, freshwater lakes are formed by water drained from the Ruparel and Kalinri rivers. On the other side, there are large creeks flowing from the Gulf of Kutch. These creeks support mangroves and other marine vegetation on the Gulf side. Thus, Khijadiya has the characteristics of both micro and macro ecosystems. The predominantly black soil produces excellent grasslands that can feed a variety of life. In fact, the grass teems with insects, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals. Raptors, steppe eagles, marsh harriers and crested serpent eagles circle the skies above.

INDO-ASIAN FLYWAY

Khijadiya is strategically located on the Indo-Asian flyway through which migratory birds from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan must traverse on their annual pilgrimage to more salubrious climes to raise their progeny. It is also a stopover point for the birds traversing the Australasian flyway migrating from Australia to South Africa to breed.

FLAMINGOES FORAGING IN the mudflats along the road to Dwarka.-

On our last visit to the Rann of Kutch, we had seen massive colonies of greater and lesser flamingoes, which come all the way to Gujarat to breed. Guided by the earth's magnetic field, these birds seem genetically programmed to visit the same spot year after year to give birth and raise their young. This time around, not only in Jamnagar but also en route to Dwarka from Jamnagar, we spot hundreds of black-necked cranes ( Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) feeding on grain in the fields. While we jump out of our cars and set up our tripods and cameras, a farmer comes with a stick and shoos them off. They take off with the whirr of thousands of wings and darken the skies. Such massive flocks can destroy a year's crop in one evening. No wonder farmers consider them a menace.

Our next destination is quite unique. Of the 42 islands off the Kutch coast, two are accessible to visitors. These islands remain submerged during high tide, but for about 12 hours each day the tide recedes to reveal the secrets of the sea. On one of them, Bet Dwarka, is a temple dedicated to Krishna. Visitors to the main Dwarkadeesh temple usually make it a point to take a ferry to Bet Dwarka. Owing to the steady stream of pilgrims, this is one of the few islands where marine life has made itself scarce. But there are others where they thrive. In order to keep these islands pristine, the Gujarat Forest Department allows visitors only on two islands, Pirotan and Narara. While we are visiting, Pirotan is also closed owing to heavy footfalls in the previous weeks, leaving only Narara for us to explore. Narara is an island adjacent to Vadinar where one of the refineries is situated. You can actually drive into Narara at low tide. At high tide, the road gets submerged.

DEMOISELLE CRANES (ANTHROPOIDES virgo) in their winter habitat in the Gulf of Kutch. The flock was seen in a pond along the road to Dwarka.-

We make our way to Narara early in the morning and drive through a smooth black road studded with sunken lights and punctuated with pointers. In fact, the road is so perfect that it feels as if you are in a science fiction movie. Actually, this road passes both the refineries and caters to the incessant traffic that carries the products to markets. At the twilight hour before sunrise, there is absolutely no traffic and we zip through it to reach Narara where Shilubhai, the forest guard, is waiting for us. We park our vehicle and begin our walk through varying landscape. Shilubhai advises us to wear our sun hats and carry bottles of water since the island offers no shelter whatsoever. Clad in Wellington boots, wide-rimmed straw hats and goggles and carrying camera equipment and binoculars, we venture onto the island. We must return before the tide returns or else we could end up on the menu of the creatures that float in with the tide.

PAINTED STORKS (MYCTERIA leucocephal) in the Khijadiya bird sanctuary basking in the setting sun.-

Walking through mangrove shrubs, we come to a stretch of earth caressed gently by the receding tide, etching its surface with wavy patterns. One is loath to step on these lines and upset their symmetry and grace. The lines change shape as you advance and assume different dimensions. Then you come to a stretch dotted with puddles. The first rays of the sun create a filigree effect on these puddles. The silvery beams undulate and dance through the stagnant water, producing a magical effect.

A raptor on its perch, ready to dive into the bushes for its prey.-

At a distance we spot a procession of VLCCs hardly visible through the morning haze. On the one side is the Mundra port, while on the other a single buoy is mooring to offload crude into a pipeline that is buried under your very feet.

Shilubhai overturns rocks to expose the creatures hiding under them. He pulls out a sea anemone and holds it up against the sun for you to admire its translucent colours and lovely shapes. He points to live corals armed with thorns and prickly projections to protect themselves against unlikely intruders who might step on them. This stretch is dotted with translucent green seaweed whose texture is rubbery.

Then we spot the puffer fish lying on a rock. Shilubhai lifts it gingerly and holds out a brittle rock for the fish to bite. With just one bite, the fish manages to crumble the rock. Its teeth are extremely sharp and could sever your toes if you happen to step anywhere near it. He lowers the fish back on the rock where it sits motionless. We are now wading through shallow waters where we spot sea urchins, Neptune crabs, live cowries, sea slugs and a host of other creatures whose Latin names Shilubhai rattles away with the ease of a professionally qualified marine biologist.

The sun has now fully risen and is climbing rapidly out of the horizon. We are now wading through knee-deep waters, and are surrounded by marine creatures of exotic shades and shapes. In fact, walking on the sea floor is even better than scuba diving or snorkelling since you are not weighed down by masks and oxygen cylinder and can view these animals without the aid of waterproof glasses. Besides, they cannot swim away and hide since there is hardly any place for them to hide. Shilubhai scoops out an octopus for us to inspect. It squirms and slithers its way out to drop back into the water, but where can it go? There is nowhere to hide. So it suffers our curious inspection with an injured look.

As we wade through, we realise we have other company as well. Painted storks, grey herons, reef herons and glossy ibises also find marine life interesting although for their own reasons. The storks scratch the sea floor with their claws and feast on the insects hiding under it. But obviously, they do not like human company. As we draw closer to them, they take off in unison to land at a distance from where they eye us warily.

The sun has already travelled way up and is now overhead, urging us to turn back lest the tide should return. We retrace our footsteps, marvelling at the ability of wildlife to adapt. A posse of black-necked cranes take flight against the backdrop of smoking chimneys.

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