On a hot, sunny day in May, bathed in sweat, I watch the shimmering waters of the Bhadra reservoir. It’s hard to miss the cacophony of a thousand birds on a few distant islets that the receding water-level has exposed. Ever so often, a cloud of birds suddenly appears, as they take off in unison, circle around, and disappear back to the islet. While the distance is too far to observe details, the birds are unmistakably River Terns (Sterna aurantia), the very same birds that have lent their name to this beautiful lodge from where I stand observing this sight.
There is never a dull moment during the boat safari I take to visit these islets. It lets me observe the birds and their habitat up-close. Every year, River Terns and Small Pratincoles visit these islets and make them their nesting ground, a safe harbour from most predators. This year, the Small Pratincoles have chosen to nest on a much smaller, but very rocky islet. The crevices between the rocks provide a safe haven for the young Pratincole chicks, shielding them from eager raptors flying overhead, I suppose.
The River Terns have chosen to nest on a large, relatively flat and sandy islet. Going closer, the islet seems to have many strata in its physical appearance. Our keen eyes scan through these strata, mostly through binoculars, observing the different phases of the River Terns’ life-cycle that are playing out simultaneously in front of our eyes.
Bathing, and Washing at the Water’s Edge
A gentle breeze blows across the reservoir, creating small waves on the sandy shore. It creates a perfect setting for the terns to bathe, splash and preen themselves, providing some much-needed relief from the scorching summer sun.
Male terns from nesting pairs fly far and wide to all corners of the reservoir, in search of the small, silvery fish that peak in the waters at this time of the year. This fish, known as ‘Bilchi’ (Barilus sp.) by the local fishermen, typically grows up to 4-5 inches. In the blink of an eye, a tern dives down, more often than not coming up with a prized possession in its beak. Off it hurries, darting away from other terns that have not had any luck and might fancy a steal.
Males often fly a few kilometres away in search of fish. By the time they make their long flight back to the islet, the fish is dried by the sun. On reaching the islet, they come to the water’s edge to wash the fish (the female needs to be impressed!) and to make it moist and soft again, so that it can be easily gulped down.
Nesting, and Mating Displays
As my eyes move up, above the water-line, I observe a sandy area where a large number of birds appear to be sitting. Some of these are female terns incubating their eggs. The eggs themselves are hard to observe, as they blend perfectly with the tiny pebbles and rocks which line these sandy beaches. This is also the staging area for the terns’ courtship and mating rituals.
A male tern, with its washed catch in its beak, approaches a female, and with a little bobbing dance, tries to impress the female with his fishing prowess. If impressed, a quick hopping-on-the-back ritual is all they need, all while trying to not get distracted or chased away by other envious males.
Further up on the islet, a few fast-growing grasses and plants have set their roots well. These plants too are making the most of their ephemeral existence before being engulfed by the monsoon and rising waters. Cleome viscosa (Yellow Spider-flower) is in bloom, lending a yellow hue to the ground. These plants protect the young hatchlings from predators and the blazing sun. It is still early in the season, and the majority of the eggs are yet to hatch. It takes me a while to notice the first chick, as it plays hide-and-seek behind these plants. But once I notice one, I notice a few. All of them are innocently curious about their surroundings, and with their beaks wide open, eagerly await their parents’ return with their meals.
The next few months are going to be the toughest phase of their life. I notice, already, a few lost chicks wandering at the edge of the islet, or awash in the water, perhaps due to last evening’s thunderstorm. Black-headed Ibises, being the opportunistic feeders they are, parade the water’s edge in search of lost, abandoned or dead hatchlings, and make a quick meal of them. All across the islet, a hundred or more ibises are waiting for this feeding opportunity. I even see a few eggs sunk in shallow waters, having probably rolled down the slope last evening.
The young hatchlings are heavily dependent on their parents for protection, as well as for the nutrition that will help them grow fast and become independent before the islet disappears underwater again. And unfortunately, natural predators like Bonelli’s Eagle, Peregrine Falcon and Brahminy Kites are not the only threats they face. These islets are very vulnerable to flooding and untimely rains. Human disturbances remain a concern. Though fishing is regulated in the Bhadra reservoir, nets and fishing lines are washed down from upstream, each monsoon; they get tangled in the by-then-submerged vegetation, giving the now-exposed tree stumps a ghostly look.
With this brief but satisfying glimpse into the life of these beautiful River Terns, we turn our boat and make our way back. The islet slowly disappears from my vision, but the constant calls of a few thousand River Terns linger in my ears.