In early October, as I trudged a well-worn trail around my favourite neighbourhood wetland, the skies darkened and the wind picked up. Presently, a relentless downpour began. I had heeded the weather forecast. Sensibly attired in shorts and floaters, armed with an umbrella, and with my binoculars safely strapped, I did not evade the rain. Instead, I took pleasure in it.
In my head, a song unspooled: Four Seasons In One Day by Crowded House. With some creative license, it could be adapted to my relationship with this wetland. Here, over the last ten months, I have experienced the nip of winter, the brief peninsular springtime, the desiccation of summer, and the cornucopia of the monsoon. Add to those another season — a pandemic-induced lockdown and the outdoorsman’s anxiety of indoor confinement. Sloshing around in a rainstorm was the crowning glory of nearly a year’s worth of birdwatching.
I feel sheepish to admit this: for over 15 years I have lived within a kilometre of Saul Kere, yet I discovered it only last December, inspired by dozens of eBird checklists. I have since made more than 65 trips, documenting over 120 avian species through the seasons.
A conspiracy of circumstances brought me here. Last October, a painful illness practically duct-taped me to bed for three weeks. Early winter was a time for field trips and birdsong, but here I was, wracked by pain and overmedicated, a cannula piercing the back of my hand. One of those painkiller-addled mornings, I heard a Pied Bushchat’s soulful soliloquy outside the window, and the first tentative chucks of a Blyth’s Reed-Warbler announcing winter.
I teared up with regret and guilt. It dawned on me in that moment that life’s little joys were too precious to squander. I resolved to find a window of time each day to devote to my love of birds. Since, it’s been over 300 days of checklisting without a pause.
Scanning Google Maps for a hotspot near me, I chanced upon Saul Kere. What kind of a name was Saul or Sowl? Some asking around fetched the answer. The name apparently drew from the local word for the clay of the lake.
Wedged into the dense matting of suburbia, this vast wetland was a squarish patch downstream from the more accessible Kaikondrahalli Lake. Nearly a kilometre across at its widest and fringed by woodland, grassland, cultivation, and swamp, Saul Kere can be explored via a dirt track skirting its 2.8-km perimeter.
I began cycling around the lake, entering through a narrow gate in the western fence cutting through a patch of dense woodland. One morning, I was greeted by a smoky-brown presence standing bolt upright on its hind-legs, sniffing the air for danger. The Grey Mongoose had not yet seen me. A pup scurried to her from the undergrowth, then another, and another. The trio frisked in a swish of tails and pink noses. I halted, taking my foot gingerly off the pedal, wishing I’d brought a camera along. Mama mongoose caught my eye. In a blink, the path was clear as if I had dreamed the whole scene.
Until the lockdown put a stop to my visits, I frequented Saul Kere almost daily. Winter migrants were abundant — swarms of Barn Swallows, Garganey, Northern Shovellers and Wood Sandpipers, small bands of Green Sandpipers and Common Snipe, growing numbers of Chestnut-tailed and Rosy Starlings, an occasional flock of Little Stints and Little Ringed Plovers… and, to dine on this moveable feast, Marsh-Harriers, Booted Eagles, Honey-Buzzards, Brahminy Kites, and even a Greater Spotted Eagle. Verditer Flycatcher, Hair-Crested Drongo, Baillon’s Crake and Common Rosefinch — these birds I saw just once.
When restrictions eased in late May, I visited the wetland again. Thunderstorms had torn down a few aged acacias. The woodland on the east verge was swampy and the dark recesses offered a safe haven for waterhens and pond herons. Adult coots and Little Grebes were trailed by downy juniors. Swamphens hid their chicks in the reed-beds. Nesting Red Avadavats shimmered like lipstick stains in the glassy light on the tussocks. Black Drongos raised broods of pesky youngsters. White-cheeked and Coppersmith Barbets excavated holes in deadwood. One morning, I chanced upon a Black-rumped Flameback.
Insects and spiders thrived in the foliage. Bark and flower mantises, a profusion of intriguing flies and myriad wasps and bees. Jumpers and lynx spiders maintained a low profile. For two weeks in July, daisy chains of migrating Blue Tiger and Common Crow butterflies wove through the grass banks. Common Wanderers, castors, jezebels, Great Orange-tips and Common Mormons thrived on sunshine. Hunting keelbacks rippled the water, and bullfrogs held up the tuba section of the monsoon orchestra.
My fondness for the trees grew, particularly for the hardy amputees transplanted from the newly widened highway. One old tree had wood-ear mushrooms growing all over its trunk. Tabebuia season brought a flush of peach to the foliage. In late September, Indian Cork trees infused the air with heady perfume while Kadamba invited curious children to pick up its fallen flowers. Bees drank themselves silly on Bixa nectar. Among the enormous ruddy leaves of Terminalia catappa, fruit bats dozed. A stately Spathodea, which I christened ‘Beautiful Alien’, was the favourite haunt of an escapee population of Alexandrine Parakeets now well-established in this neck of the woods.
As with many Bengaluru lakes, threats persist. Residential layouts have discreetly encroached the commons. Open sewers bring raw sewage. On the eastern side, an infotech company releases treated water into the swamp. Grazing and grass-cutting are rampant. Shanties have sprung up on the edges, releasing untreated waste and garbage. Feral cats stalk birds, while packs of dogs prowl the perimeter.
Winter to winter, the migrants have kept their date with Saul Kere. Paradise flycatchers and Asian Brown Flycatchers have been spotted this season. The sandpipers, shovellers and garganey have arrived, and the wetland is raucous with unfamiliar calls. This October marked a year since my illness, and I am celebrating the anniversary of my resurrection with the birds of Saul Kere.
Saul Kere can be accessed via Sarjapur Road from Kaikondrahalli gate and from Outer Ring Road via RMZ EcoWorld. It is open from 6:30 to 10 am and 4 pm to 7 pm all week. Entry is free. There are no restrooms. Binoculars, good shoes and a hat/cap are recommended.