On a bright morning on the 4th day of the new year, an energetic, inspired, yet concerned group of citizen volunteers and birdwatchers gathered at Venkatappa Art Gallery for a half-day workshop to kickstart the Annual Mid-Winter Waterfowl Census 2020 in Bengaluru.
The first Waterfowl Census was conducted by members of the Bird Watchers’ Field Club of Bengaluru (BWFCB) in 1989. Successive efforts by the club have contributed to a keen awareness of the devastating effects of “civilisation” on our city’s lakes and their inhabitants – winged, scaled, gilled and others. This year’s census was no routine affair though. Thanks to the untiring efforts and unrelenting courtroom battles by the city-based Environment Support Group (ESG), the 2020 census was ordered by none other than the Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court in order to assess ‘the prevailing condition of lakes, from a wetlands perspective.’ Helmed by ESG and BWFCB, the stated objective was therefore to survey the lakes of Bengaluru as wetland ecosystems and waterfowl habitats.
Serendipitously, the survey, which was planned across 4 weekends, would end on the 2nd of February, a day celebrated globally as World Wetlands Day to mark the 1971 signing in Iran, of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands.
Wetlands are different from other forms of water bodies in that they host aquatic vegetation adapted to hydric soil or soil saturated with water, resulting in anaerobic conditions. They provide critical ecological services such as purifying and storing water, sequestering carbon, stabilizing shorelines, and serving as habitats for a multitude of plant and animal species.
The organisers had designed the survey as a blend of on-the-ground, first-hand observations and smart online software to gather and record data that would then be submitted as evidence to the court, of the condition of the city’s lakes and the urgent and critical need to strengthen and implement restoration and protection measures.
I had opted to join the group that surveyed the lakes in East Bengaluru. Over the course of four weeks, the East Bengaluru team, led by veteran birder AS Kannan, surveyed 13 lakes in the Indiranagar, KR Puram, Whitefield and Marathahalli belts. I was able to join in surveying 6 of these lakes – Bagamane, Hoodi, Doddanekundi, Kaggadasapura, Kundalahalli and Seetharamapalya.
Our very first stop was Bagamane Kere, abutting the swanky Bagamane Tech Park. We were to observe the lake based on many parameters – water source, disturbances, development status, garbage and sewage dumping, bird population and sightings of other mammals, reptiles, fish and several more. Grey-headed Swamphens, among the most beautiful water birds in my view, foraged in the foul-smelling sewage near the inlet pipe. Their purple forms glistened like jewels in the gentle early morning light, even as they waded in the sludge and the muck with a couple of juveniles in tow.
Our team of volunteers carried out block counts of many Little Egrets on the lake. We gradually progressed around the lake stopping to watch several more species such as Black-winged Stilts, Sand Plovers, Eurasian Coots, grebes and many more. The lake, now a dump for untreated sewage and garbage from the surrounding human habitat, was home to many water birds. A dead fruit bat hung from the electric wire running along one side of the lake.
We inched further along the lake behind the tech park, watching out for more birds. A Purple Sunbird’s nest on a tree along the shore caught our attention. Common Tailorbirds, Scaly-breasted Munias, Ashy Prinias, a Coppersmith Barbet, a White-breasted Kingfisher and many more winged beauties showed their presence along the lake shore.
The edge of the lake was littered with plastic and paper cups from the stalls along the compound wall behind the tech park, where many employees came by for a cup of tea. Bags overflowing with garbage hung from several places on the fence all around. The fence itself was in disrepair in several places and each of these gaps appeared to be used to dump more trash into the lake. As we walked back to our cars to head to the next lake, we decided a group selfie was in order and posed by the lake trying to smile despite the foul smell, and even with little room for all of us to huddle together in the midst of the litter and the wet spots, obviously from human urine!
I had the task of filling out the online lake status form. In went all the data – Is the lake being “developed”? How did we cover it – by foot or by car or any other mode and what extent of the shoreline? Status of the bund, the lake margin, whether the lake bed was visible or overgrown, were there islands in the tank, water source, water quality, water usage, aquatic vegetation, margin and foreshore vegetation, importance of the lake to birds, disturbances if any, threats such as dumping of garbage, industrial waste and sewage inlets, buildings around the lake and more.
Kaggadasapura Kere was our next stop. A sprawling “lake” with no water, profusely overgrown with vegetation and fully “developed” with a jogging track laid all around it, it was bound by high-end villas, apartment complexes and industries all around. Untreated sewage entered the lake bed from Raja Kaaluves and sewage inlet pipes. Residents from the apartments and gated communities around the lake were out for their morning stroll. We were frequently mistaken for desperate tourists loitering around a derelict lake!
As we worked our way around the lake, watching for various bird species and noting the excess sewage and garbage making their way into the lake, we couldn’t help catch sight of the gleaming Audis, BMWs and Mercs parked in the luxury villas to one side of the lake. The irony! We soon approached one end of the lake bed and encountered foam floating in the air around and drifting into the balconies of adjoining apartment buildings. Sensing what lay ahead, we increased our pace and came to a fence, beyond which lay a large sewage canal, chock-full of snow-white froth. The sight screamed industrial sewage, as is the case whenever there is foaming in a lake. We all stood watching in dismay at the ugliness and sadness of it all. The scene captured on our cameras, we moved on, feet laden and minds desolate. Many more species-native and migratory-recorded, it was time to fill out the lake census form.
Doddanekundi lake was the next on our list for the day. Shimmering glass facades of several global multinational corporates loomed beyond the large lake. The searing heat from the mid-morning sun was beginning to wear us down. Generous sightings of an assortment of migratory and resident water birds were our reward for the toil and kept spirits from sagging.
Alligator weed grew in plenty in many parts of the lake. I chatted-up a lady sitting by the lakeside with a big bundle of alligator weed by her side. “They are fodder for my cattle,” she said, recounting the tedious process of wading in waist-high water to harvest the weed. There were cattle grazing among the weed. A few of them lumbered along on the walking path. One curious sort followed us for a bit, nudging a few of us, trying to sniff at our cameras.
Several Purple Herons, Black-winged Stilts, Eurasian Coots, Garganeys, Northern Shovelers, resident Spot-billed Ducks, Lesser Whistling Ducks, Red-wattled and Grey-headed Lapwings, Little-Intermediate and Cattle Egrets, Paddyfield Pipits, Indian Pond Herons, Wood Sandpipers, Great Cormorants, Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, a Western Marsh Harrier and many more resident and migratory species were a treat to watch on the vast expanse that was Doddanekundi Kere.
The following week, we surveyed Hoodi Kere, Kundalahalli Kere and Seetharamapalya Kere. Of these, Kundalahalli Kere appeared to be well-maintained, though completely ‘developed’ with a jogging track all around. Two massive pylons rose from the lake bed carrying high-tension wires. One of them appeared to be a favourite spot for roosting cormorants, with many perched at various heights.
Cormorants were pretty much the only bird species we found at Kundalahalli Kere. The shore mostly had monoculture vegetation of Singapore Cherry trees all around. The lake did not host any sort of emergent or floating vegetation for water birds to nest, roost or wade. Nevertheless, the fact that Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) was actively maintaining the lake and keeping it free of garbage and sewage was a big plus.
In contrast, despite the dumping of garbage and sewage, Hoodi Kere and Seetharamapalya Kere hosted a better diversity of aquatic and shore birds, thanks to the emergent and floating vegetation, and the mixed shore vegetation. A large banyan tree on the shores of Hoodi Kere teemed with several bird species including barbets, mynas, flowerpeckers, a female Asian Koel, a pair of Golden Orioles and many more. A lively flock of Barn Swallows kept us enthralled with their aerial acrobatics.
More of the same at Seetharamapalya Kere, where we watched a few Purple Sunbird pairs among the many Giant Milkweed Plants (Calotropis gigantea) that grew on the bund. A Blyth’s Reed Warbler kept us guessing about its identity as it flitted from branch to branch with its tail fanned out. A plucky Golden Oriole warded off attacks from a flock of drongos as it sat feeding on one of the trees on the shore. A pair of Eurasian Coots squabbled and chased each other on the lake as juveniles followed them around. Possibly a domestic tiff!
Many more teams of volunteers dedicated their weekends to survey Bengaluru’s lakes and probably had similar stories to report back – of wonder, fascination, dismay and helplessness in the same vein. It is a surprise that our sorry excuses for lakes and wetland habitats are still deemed worthy of annual visits by many migratory bird species, though dwindling in numbers as the years progress. Birds, mammals, reptiles and fish are feeding, breeding, rearing offspring and trying to eke out a living in fast-dwindling habitats that we humans insolently defile and destroy.
Valiant and concerted efforts by citizen groups and concerned individuals over the years have not been able to stand in the way of burgeoning real estate development that is shrinking common spaces, choking natural habitats within Bengaluru and ruthlessly elbowing-out all other life forms in the city to oblivion, gradually at first, and rapidly now.
While citizen initiatives such as the Waterfowl Census 2020 backed by the highest court of the state may not entirely salvage Bengaluru’s lakes, it is a step in the right direction. The initiative may nudge the government agencies to implement and tighten regulations, keep common spaces truly common, and consciously preserve them for other life-forms within the precincts of Namma Bengaluru, rather than give in to the pressures of privatisation – of parks, lakes, wetlands, grasslands and forest patches.