Have you spotted an Indian Thick-knee in Delhi? The one that wails loudly? Most likely, you haven’t. But there is one place in the city where you can not only sight this bird but even stand a good chance of coming across its nest, which is always built on the ground.
This lovely yellow-eyed bird with a yellow-and-black beak can be seen at the most exclusive address in the Capital—the sprawling 320 acres of the President’s Estate on Raisina Hill.
According to a 2002 survey by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Rashtrapati Bhavan has 91 species of birds. Bird experts say the number could be higher as this serene green space, with a great number of fruit trees, is an ideal habitat for birds.
Delhi, which has 275 species of trees, hosts around 500 species of birds—60% of them are migratory. “There is a confluence of two very different landscapes in Delhi—alluvial riverine habitat and scrubland—and this merging supports diversity,” says Sajeev T.K., a manager at BNHS’ Delhi centre.
No wonder then that Bikram Grewal, co-author of Atlas of the Birds of Delhi And Haryana, describes the city as a fantastic place for birdwatching. “It has the second largest number of birds in any capital in the world, after Nairobi,” he says.
This year Rashtrapati Bhavan’s avian inhabitants were captured on lens by Thomas Mathew, an avid birdwatcher and photographer who is also additional secretary to the President. Between April and June, Mathew took shots of around 45 species. Late last month, he held an exhibition, Summer Sightings of Birds at President’s Estate, in the swimming pool area of the President’s Estate; it was not open to the public.
Photographing birds is not easy. Mathew would get up before sunrise and camouflage himself in green clothes and a grass-coloured hat. He would then put on a green fishnet to cover himself along with his tripod and camera, which has a long, protruding lens.
“It can take hours to get the perfect shot of a bird,” he says. “In fact, it can be days before you get a shot that you are looking for.” At the end of each day’s “hunt”, Mathew would be drenched in sweat.
He is now planning a detailed book. “We want to complete a one-year cycle on sightings of birds inside Rashtrapati Bhavan,” he says. An earlier study by the BNHS, in 2002, had resulted in the book The Birds of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Mathew says he has found three more species—the red-naped ibis, the white-breasted waterhen and the Eurasian common moorhen.
The President’s Estate, designed by British architect Edwin Lutyens, was built in the 1930s at the site of a village on Raisina Hill. Since Lutyens planned for a “garden city”, he went to the extent of importing fertile soil from other parts of the country. “The land around the Estate was completely dug out, rocks were removed and alluvial soil, brought from other parts of the country, was filled in the area,” says Sajeev. “As a result, the soil in Rashtrapati Bhavan is extraordinarily fertile and has yielded diverse flora, which then is able to sustain fauna.”
Next week President Pranab Mukherjee is set to complete his first year in office. Within a few months of moving to Rashtrapati Bhavan, Mukherjee had ordered the preparation of a Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan (CCMP) for the complex. The plan, submitted in June by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), not only aims to conserve the estate’s rich ecosystem, but also improve it so that it attracts more birds.
Rashtrapati Bhavan is not easily accessible but birdwatchers need not despair. There are many other places in the city where they can spend fruitful hours: Lodhi Gardens, the Yamuna Biodiversity Park, Okhla Bird Sanctuary, Sanjay Van (behind Qutb Minar), Tughlaqabad fort, Buddha Jayanti Park, Mahavir Jayanti Park and the Ridge.
Faiyaz A. Khudsar, the scientist in charge at east Delhi’s Yamuna Biodiversity Park, says the wetland—described as “home to vanishing flora and fauna”—hosted 190 species last year. “We see a lot of birds because the place is managed by scientists who know which plant communities and wetland ecosystems are highly productive for birds.”
Of course Rashtrapati Bhavan is a more secure place for birds than the city’s other sanctuaries. For instance, the Indian Thick-knee that builds its nest on the ground may be vulnerable to predators and ignorant walkers anywhere else in the Capital, but it’s safe on Raisina Hill. “The gardeners have been trained not to disturb the nests,” says Mathew.
Since 2008, Rashtrapati Bhavan has had a tree-lined nature trail open to groups of visitors every Saturday, from 10am-1pm. It passes a pond that gets a lot of birds—the best time to find them in large numbers is at sunrise and late evening, when the birds venture out for food. Sadly, entry is not allowed at both times.
Perhaps it is all for the good. The birds in Rashtrapati Bhavan at least don’t have to worry about encounters with humans. For, as Grewal warns, wetland encroachment, tree felling and pollution are putting many species in danger. “We need to make sure that some places, for example the Okhla Bird Sanctuary, are kept inviolate. We have already seen sparrows disappearing as they are not getting undisturbed areas in the cities to build nests,” he says.
Meanwhile, Mathew’s camera is capturing birds for a second exhibition, which will be related to the monsoon sightings of birds on the President’s Estate. Sadly, this exhibition too won’t be open to the public.