The average world-weary human has discovered the pleasures of travelling – they look forward to weekends in the hope of enjoying exciting destinations. Sometimes an architectural delight awaits; sometimes a wildlife encounter. When the weekend arrives, they drive towards their destination, past rivers and lakes, and maybe fields that lie fallow. Let us stop right there – it is in those fallow fields that our story begins. In those very wetlands are wonders waiting to be discovered.
Scientifically speaking, wetlands are “areas of marsh, fen, peat-land or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres” (reference 1). But for you and me, wetlands take a simpler form, like those fallow lands that may not always look picturesque, which we drive past while heading to destinations far more glamorous.
Someday, if you do decide to stop by to try and see what wetlands hold, chances are that you will see a flock of parakeets; maybe mynas too. The land will look beautiful in the evening sun. But you might also feel let-down, as was our first experience with Barkur. Located in Karnataka’s coastal district of Udupi, this wetland seemed to be devoid of the life-forms we were promised. We simply did not know how to tease the land into revealing its mysteries. Not to be thwarted, we returned again another weekend, at the break of dawn. This time, armed with friends who taught us how to look.
As wild balsams blew in the wind and hardy ixora bloomed in the sun, action-packed events unfolded before us, and the land was teeming with life. There were warblers on reeds and munias on grass. Red Avadavats gleamed like gems. Larks sang their songs, a hoopoe tried to hide in plain sight, and raptors took to the skies. We watched as an ecosystem opened up before us. If you spare a moment to think about the insects, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals and birds that call the wetlands home, not to mention the flora of the land, you will see what I mean by a whole ecosystem.
One cannot do justice to a wetland ecosystem with art, but here’s my attempt to showcase a few of the birds we observed on multiple visits to Barkur: just a few of the very many there are.
White-throated Kingfisher – If you are new to this business, chances are that this is the kingfisher you will see and hear most often. Its white throat is a dead giveaway, as is its screaming call in flight. Ref image: from Pixabay.
Common Kingfisher – This tiny kingfisher prefers the proximity of fresh-water sources, and can be seen perched on vantage points, bobbing it head. It merges well into the background irrespective of its bright colours and is quite easy to miss if you are not looking for it. Ref image: from Pixabay.
White-rumped Munia – A widespread resident of the Indian subcontinent, the White-rumped Munia is ubiquitous. Imagine a sparrow-sized bird with a large triangular beak and you have a munia. Pair that with a white rump and you have a White-rumped Munia. These social birds are most often seen in groups.
Tricoloured Munia – It sports bold dashes of black, cinnamon and white, and makes quite a style statement. Also known as the Black-headed Munia, these birds are partial to grass seeds, and you will find them on reeds. Ref image: Tarini Das @photo_magicshots (Instagram)
Red Avadavat – Blessed are those who see a Red Avadavat. You will know it when you see it, for my words do no justice to this bird that also goes by the name ‘Strawberry Finch’. Ref image: Roopesh Anjumana @roopeshanjumana (Instagram)
Red-wattled Lapwing – Another widespread resident, this bird will definitely be heard if not seen. Listen for the “did-he-do-it” calls as you walk along a wetland. If you do come across the bird, take a moment to appreciate its red wattle. Ref image: from Pixabay.
Baya Weaver – Found everywhere in our grasslands, Baya Weavers live in communal roosts. While walking near wetlands, keep an eye on the trees nearby, and you may stumble upon one such colony. If you do, make a silent retreat.
Malabar Lark – As you walk, if melancholy notes drift towards you, think of a Malabar Lark. Look for its crest, but keep in mind that it may not be obvious when kept folded.
Greater Coucal – The baritone voice of the coucal may reach you from the other end of the wetland, but if it is next to you, observe how the bird prefers to walk its way through life. Flying maybe overrated after all.
Eurasian Hoopoe – The hoopoe graces fields just as elegantly as it graces literary pages. One may not suspect it, but the bird camouflages superbly in fields. Look for it foraging on the ground. And no, the bird does not fan out its crest all the time. Ref image: Shrikrishna Magdum @shrikrishnamagdum (Instagram)
Brahminy Kite – A widespread resident, this kite is quite distinguishable with its chestnut body and white head. The same, however, cannot be said about its juveniles – it is said that they take special delight in confounding young birders. Ref image: Jishnu @jishnu_kunnath_rc (Instagram)
Western Marsh Harrier – It is their flight that gives away these winter visitors. You can find them gliding a few metres above fields, looking for prey. A flock of birds suddenly taking to the air gives away the presence of a Western Marsh Harrier even in distant fields.
Woolly-necked Stork – As the name suggests, the bird sports quite a ruffled neck that is hard to miss. It also has breathtakingly iridescent wings. On the ground or soaring up in the skies, the stork is a delight to watch.
Lesser Adjutant – A winter visitor, this shy, lesser-known cousin of the Greater Adjutant is a vulnerable stork species.
Bluethroat – This winter visitor would pass for an ordinary chat till you get a glimpse of its spectacularly coloured throat and breast. Evidently, the plumage is distinguishable enough for the bird to go by a mononym.
Barn Swallow – Of all the birds, it is the Barn Swallows that put up the best show in a wetland. Their dives and mid-air turns are a sight to behold. To identify them from the other swallows, look for bright red foreheads and throats and blue-black breast-bands. Ref image: Chirantan Vasista @chirantanvasista (Instagram)
Ramsar Information Paper 1, Ramsar convention on wetlands, Ramsar (Iran), 1971: https://www.ramsar.org/sites/default/files/documents/library/info2007-01-e.pdf