At six in the morning, while most of New Delhi sleeps, the Okhla Bird Sanctuary is bursting with activity. One side of the Yamuna river is covered with birds of white, grey and orange feathers. On the other, an army of admirers armed with binoculars, cameras and scopes is preparing for the kill. I am one of them.
I crane my neck to watch a group of Painted Storks settle on a muddy, watery patch. Amateur birdwatchers can easily identify these birds by their white and black markings. They have delicate pink lines on the lower back and legs. With a loud cackle, an adult stork immerses its head in the clear water, opens its huge curved beak and swallows a frog. It burps a signal for the other group members to join the feast. Nearby, a crab crawls to save its life but is caught by a greedy gull. One by one, spoonbills (their bills are spoon-shaped) plunge into the river like experienced swimmers. It’s rejuvenating and relaxing to be here. Birdwatching at Okhla is my antidote to stress.
The sanctuary is located on the Yamuna river between New Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, at the south-eastern end of New Delhi. It came into existence with the construction of the Okhla Barrage in the late 1950s and 1960s. Each year, Okhla is visited by hundreds of endangered ducks, waders and raptors which migrate all the way from far-off places such as Siberia and China and make it their winter home. Birds use the Yamuna river as a staging post for migration both ways during the winter.
More than 330 species have been spotted here—migratory, resident, rare and elusive. Walk in on any day and you will surely spot at least 30 species.
Currently, the birding club has divided the park into five points according to the type of species found here—Bittern Point and Banyan Tree; Wader Point; Heron, Ibis and Stork Point; Duck Point; and Flamingo Point.
We start the walk from Wader Point. Last night’s rain has made the ground wet and slippery, and it’s quite a task to walk and see through the binoculars at the same time. The Wader area appears lifeless without the migratory ducks. There are only a couple of common coots and dabbling ducks that bob in and out like kolu dolls. Far ahead, early migrants such as Common Pochards and gulls laze in the dry grass beds, making perfect photo ops for the birders.
It’s baby’s day out for the Common Shelduck family. The young ones are getting their swimming lessons. A restless Red-necked Falcon perched on a kikar (acacia) tree eyes them. Without any warning call, it takes off and attacks the family. Thankfully, it misses. The babies live another day. On the periphery, common moorhens—fondly known as Lipstick Birds—try to free themselves from the hyacinth tangle. A naughty Black Drongo bullies a prinia by chasing it from one reed to another. Suddenly, the whole area is filled with the “patela-patela” call. It’s a family of Black Francolin out for a morning walk.
Bidding adieu to the river, we walk towards Banyan Tree Point, where rare birds have been spotted. Disturbed by the group’s talk, a curious Eurasian Thick-knee (named after its thick knees) dashes out from the bushes. The bird’s peculiar way of walking reminds you of Charlie Chaplin. With its protruding eyes, it stares at us suspiciously but is distracted by a beautiful Blue Tiger Butterfly floating by. With a bored look, it hobbles back into the reeds.
Moving ahead, we pay a visit to the Spotted Owl family that has made the banyan tree its permanent home. The tree is huge and we divide ourselves in groups of three to track the owl. But the owl remains elusive—disturbed perhaps by the incessant chatter of shrike.
Soon, the sun comes up and we call it a day. Proudly, we discuss our catches and tick the checklist. In true birding style, we wrap up our day with a South Indian breakfast.
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