Khijadiya: Smoking Chimneys; Soaring Cranes (2012)

Khijadiya:  Smoking Chimneys; Soaring Cranes (2012)

Jamnagar seems an unlikely location for a bird sanctuary or a marine national park.  The capital of a former princely state known as Nawanagar, Jamnagar 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 painteds deep red and quite distinctive. Its outskirts, once a pristine wilderness, host a forest now –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 them, 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 half way around the world, 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 is unimaginable. Besides the refineries, there are assorted other industries – fertilizers, power plants and chemical industries lining the highway. One would have thought that with all this industrial activity, Jamnagar would have scared all wildlife away!

Unique Eco-system

But considering that Gulf of Kutch is home to a very unique ecosystem, wildlife that thrives on such an environment has little choice but to adapt and carry on.  How else would you explain the presence of literally thousands of migratory and local birds at Khijadiya, a bird sanctuary just twelve kilometres from Jamnagar? 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 salt pans, fresh water bodies, rivers, desert 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.

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 salt water lake and on the other, marshes replete with bulrushes, shrubs and tall grass.  There are also many fresh water ponds scattered throughout the 605 hectare national park.  Khijadiya attracts winged visitors of all kinds – those that survive on fresh water, those frequenting salt pans, such as flemingos and aquatic birds that thrive on fresh water.This park was not known to many until a few years ago, although Salim Ali  who visited the spot in 1984 sighted 104 species of birds on a single day.  Recently, Khijadiya played host to hundreds of international ornithologists and bird watchers. Nearly 100 delegates from 45 countries discussed birds with more than 300 Indian bird lovers and experts in November 2010 and ever since, Khijadiya’s visibility has increased tremendously.

Of the more than 250 species of migratory water birds found here, some are unique and rare while others are common birds like herons, ducks, storks, ibises, spoonbills, flamingos, 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 and Darters – the list in the Khijaiya Interpretation Centre is long. While we are there, we manage to spot around 30 species and we are, by no means experts on the subject.

Kingfisher Acrobatics

As you enter the park, you’re treated to the delightful acrobatics of a kingfisher diving for its dinner.  Only a moment ago, the same kingfisher was perched on a branch, preening itself with apparent disinterest.  In the twinkling of an eye, the bird 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 while another perches on a branch.  Their wings glint in the evening light while their raucous calls shatter the silence. Bluebulls (Nilgai) graze placidly in the slopes of the pond, their outlines silhouetted against the evening sun.

The pond in the foreground is crowded. Herons, egrets, cormorants and cranes are busy catching their last meal of the day.

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 white pelicans gracefully float and move in tandem, as if obeying an invisible baton of a conductor. We stand mesmerized by this wonderful sight against the backdrop of distant water-tanks and factory chimneys.

The Khijadiya lakes are formed by reclamation bounds which were built during the erstwhile state regime. After independence these bunds were repaired and strengthened to prevent the salinity ingress. On one side of the bund fresh water lakes are formed by water which drains from Ruparel and Kalinri rivers. On the other side of the bund, large creeks flowing from the Gulf of Kutch are located. These creeks support mangroves and other marine vegetation on the Gulf side. Thus it has the characteristic of both micro and macro ecosystems.  The predominantly black soil of the earth produces excellent grasslands that can feed a variety of life. In fact, the grass teems with insects, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals. Raptors, Steppe eagle, Marsh Harrier and Crested Serpent Eagle 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. On our last visit to the Rann of Kutch, we had seen massive colonies of Greater and Lesser flemingos which come all the way to Gujarat to breed.  Guided by 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 Dwaraka from Jamnagar, we spot hundreds of black-necked cranes feeding on grains 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 an evening. No wonder farmers consider them a menace.

(Published in Frontline dated May 5, 2012)

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