How would you expect to spend your Valentine’s Day? Probably a movie, a nice stroll through an ornamental Garden, or a romantic candle lit dinner perhaps. I began mine in probably the best way I deemed possible – a walk in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park with a motley group including first timers like my wife, a seasoned birder and some amateurs struggling to distinguish their Bulbul from their Shrike.
As we began our slow descent down a jogging track that began at the parking, pinning heart shaped badges to our bosoms which were meant to identify us with our names, little did I know how much more I was to learn about birds of the NCR in the space of just an hour. Saurojit Ghosal was our guide for the day, a tan, lanky fellow with enough experience to reasonably identify a winged critter from more than a hundred yards through the naked eye.
The trek begins
Our group of twenty had just begun to cross the first major landmark on our trail, the earthy open air amphitheater, when cries of ‘hush,hush’ went through the crowd. “Keep your voice down, else we will disturb the birds..” – whispered Swanzal, betraying a childlike glee that is a departure from her usually staid composure. On our left, on the high grass of the species Saccharum, was a small group of Indian Silverbills, noisily chittering while feeding on the juicy seeds. A lone Babbler was giving them company, seemingly unaffected by their presence.
Spouting deep knowledge of the species of the NCR, Saurojit began showing us pictures of the Silverbill in his field guide, so people peering through their binoculars could identify them properly. We met another group consisting of members from ISOLA (The Institute of Land Architects) from the opposite side, led by Vijay Dhasmana, our resident ecologist. We exchanged glances, each wanting to know what the other group was up to, and some of the team members, including Latika, joined them on the way back. The Park was a hive of activity that day, with a third group called the Bio Djinns organizing a rappelling course for adventure enthusiasts in the Park itself. At any rate, there were at least a hundred odd people participating in some or the other activity.
How to start being a birder
Walking ahead, we had scarcely turned a little towards the right, when Saurojit pointed out a Lesser White Throat on a little rise, feeding on insects. This gesture sparked the curiosity of a wizened gentleman in the group, who began inquiring as to how one should take the first steps towards becoming a birder. “We go birding every Sunday. If you want to get updates on where and when these birding trips are organized, check out the Indian Birds Home Page,” quipped Saurojit.
Of pretty females, migrants and ‘fowl’ play
Beyond the crossing, we espied a Male Indian Robin flitting about on top of a Papdi tree, and a Rufous fronted Prinia nearby, which Saurojit recognized in a trice. By the time the others gained sense of what was happening, he had already rattled off half a speech on how the male and female look like, and how they behave.
On our approach towards the five spoked ‘hub’ that leads to the Nursery, Some women in the group started a discussion that made my wife giggle, which she later suppressed, owing to her shy nature. As Saurojit was pointing out the activities of a Male Bulbul, these women were wondering if there were any bird species where the female is pretty, while the opposite is the norm. The very thought of drawing analogies with the human notion of beauty was leaving them in splits! Speaking matter of factly, he said there are in fact such species, such as the Printed Snipe. His matter of factness somehow served to make the situation even more comical!
We saw some more species on both sides of the valley on the way to the Nursery, including the Purple Sunbird which Saurojit recognized solely by its rapid whistling and a Red vented Bulbul sitting on a withered Keekar. The latter seemed to be heralding the arrival of spring with its sonorous call. He told us that the species we were able to get a look at were only the resident birds; the season for migratory birds had gotten over a week ago. The second wave of migrants such as the orioles would only visit the Park by the onset of Monsoon. We were also pointed out some Quails calling to each other from either side of the jogging track, a partridge and a Brahminy Myna. The former were apparently searching for a place to nest.
A cause for concern
Nearing the Nursery, a discussion on the reasons why birds were disappearing from the NCR began, to which Saurojit added by giving us an alarming verbal snippet on the Egyptian Vulture. This species is dying off due to diclofenac poisoning, which enters its system when it feeds on cattle carcasses which are heavily dosed with antibiotics. He also instructed us on how to identify raptors such as the Black Kite, using parameters such as shape of the tail, the number of end feathers on the ends of the wings and the style of flying.
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The tables are turned
Upon entering the Nursery Gates, the tables were turned on Saurojit, and it was now his turn to be educated. This was prime Iamgurgaon territory, with Nidhi and Anjali identifying species of plant saplings with aplomb! Anil, the nursery supervisor was asked to point out the species currently growing in the beds nearest the group, which he promptly did. Pehi, Kaim, Bistendu, Chamrod, Anjeer, Salai, Lumbago and Gangeti were some of the species shown to the group by the team members.
A solitary Papdi had grown more than 2 meters, under which the group was standing when Nidhi suddenly asked Anil to bring some Gurmar leaves. This tree has a very peculiar effect on the tongue. Once its leaves are chewed, the person subsequently fails to taste the sweetness of sugar! The leaves were distributed all around, and then the group was given sugar to taste. What followed was a string of audible gasps as the leaves took effect. Some one even suggested playing a nasty prank by bringing their kids along to taste Gurmar, as a science experiment.
On the way back
The moment we came out of the Nursery, Saurojit was in his element again, as if seemingly to make up for intellectual ground he had conceded to Nidhi and Anjali for the time being. We were pointed out a Blue Throated Kingfisher, the only kingfisher which does not need to be near a water body, an Ashy Prinia and a Long Tailed Shrike. We were told that the Yellow Eyed Babbler, the Rufous fronted Prinia and the White Eared Bulbul are only found in the Aravalli Biodiversity Park and another area in Delhi called the Mangarbani, having disappeared from elsewhere in the NCR. Another cause for pride was the fact that the Park being still an open forest, is a paradise for birders, who can locate the birds easily.
As if to bid adieu, a common kestrel whooshed past just above our heads in a hasty flight akin to a military fly past, thanking us for taking the time out to come here, when we could just as easily have been strolling through some mall, shopping for gifts for our other half.
Finishing with a scrumptious breakfast
As if the walk itself were not reward enough, the Iamgurgaon team members went out of their way to host a delicious breakfast for the group members on the lawn near the ‘Green Room’, the humble onsite office of the Park. The group was rejoined by Latika, as Swanzal began the ‘proceedings’, fishing out plates and glasses from jute bags. The participants were treated to Vermicelli noodles, salami sandwiches, home baked cake (kindly supplied by Namrita), idlis and some absolutely mouth watering tomato chutney. Two hours ago, we were clueless birders struggling to understand what Saurojit was telling us. Really?
Signing off, and not meaning to proselytize, I would love to say this from the bottom of my heart – if you wish ever to give back something to society that will benefit them as much as possible in an overarching manner, help in restoring our beautiful natural surroundings. There is scarcely a greater feeling of satisfaction, elsewhere. Come fall in love with the Aravallis!