As I got out of the car the first thing I realised was that the temperature had dropped drastically. I reached into the backseat to retrieve the down jacket that I hadn’t bothered to put on when I left from home on this freakishly early January morning. There was, of course, the fog which was doing a fantastic job of obscuring the massive iron and wood gate that I knew lay not ten feet ahead of me.
I was standing outside Surajpur, the small, yet intense reminder of the habitat that once surrounded what we now, rather unimaginatively refer to as the National Capital Region. Surajpur is essentially a large, shallow lake, surrounded by reeds and a sparse forest. While other wetlands fell prey to residential high-rises and the occasional Formula 1 track, Surajpur survived. In fact, with a little help from the WWF and the Uttar Pradesh government, it is now thriving.
Surajpur, much like bonfires and barbecues is a part of my winter ritual. Over the last few years, it has become so engrained in my muscle memory that even wheI I write this, in a featureless, boxed-in office building on a sultry September evening, I can still catch the faint whiff of rotting vegetation. Wait! Was that the quack of a northern shoveller I just heard. Surely that can’t be true. Oh how the mind plays games!
The lake at Surajpur is home to a variety of resident birds, including Sarus Cranes, Spot-billed duck, Black-headed Ibis, Wooly-necked Stork, Asian Spoonbill, Painted stork, etc. In the winter months, however, the numbers swell with the arrival of the migrants. Walking along its sometimes overgrown paths, the occasional nilgai might just cross you.
Here’s a selection of some of the resident birdlife of Surajpur Bird Sanctuary:
One of the smallest and perhaps the most charming residents of Surajpur Bird Sanctuary are the Munias. Unfortunately, during my visits to the park, I have only spotted the Indian Silverbill, or the silver-billed Munia.
One of the largest (actually, the second largest after the graceful Sarus crane) birds of the park is also one of my favourite birds – the Black Necked Stork. Possessing a jet black neck and a menacing, almost sword-like bill, loharjung as the bird is known in Hindi, has acquired an almost mythical status in my mind. In my five years as an active birdwatcher, I have had numerous sightings of this magnificent bird, but never got as close to it as I would have desired. Surajpur was where I got the closest. This passage from the Wikipedia entry for Black Necked Stork tells an interesting tale:
The Mir Shikars, traditional bird hunters of Bihar, India had a ritual practice that required a young man to capture a black-necked stork “Loha Sarang” alive before he could marry. A procession would locate a bird and the bridegroom-to-be would try to catch the bird with a limed stick. The cornered bird was a ferocious adversary. The ritual was stopped in the 1920s after a young man was killed in the process.
Conservation planners at Surajpur have ensured that the wetland is dotted with a number of man-made islands for birds to perch and nest on. In certain cases, Surajpur Bird Sanctuary’s resident population of Purple Swamphens take over a particular island, resulting in what can appear to be a purple floating mass:
Every winter, the resident population of Surajpur welcome travellers from the steppes of central Asia and the wetlands of Siberia. Unlike Donald Trump, the spot-billed ducks and the Sarus Cranes of Surajpur have not yet passed an executive order banning seasonal migrants like Red-crested Pochards, Ferruginous Pochards, Bar-headed Geese, Greylag Geese, Common Teals, Northern Shovelers and Gadwalls.
The walking trail at Surajpur is essentially one long oval circuit, parts of which are often overgrown. On many a winter morning, I found myself walking through knee high grass, dripping with dew. Towards the end of the circuit, one comes across a grove, that stretches till the water’s edge. This is my favourite spot in the park. The picnickers do not make it till here, so it is often quiet, and if you sit here quietly for some time, the birds start to get accustomed to your presence.
Surajpur is a brutal reminder of what once was, and what precious little we have left. Surajpur is a cautionary tale against human greed and mindless ‘development’. Recently, I hear whispers of an ‘eco-village’ being planned on the side of the sanctuary that is the most undisturbed. Why? Why can we not let the wild things be? There is a large and very selfish voice inside me that wants nobody to know about the existence of Surajpur. This part of me does not want people to come here for picnics. This part of me does not want to see children running amok and parents running after them, dropping plastic bags and wrappers wily-nily. This part of me wants to keep Surajpur a secret.
So if you chance upon this blog, do not go looking for Surajpur. Do not share this blog on your social media timelines. Let the first and only rule of Surajpur be ‘You don’t speak about Surajpur’. So here is one last look at Surajpur before you purge its memory off your brain.