Friday, April 12, 2019

A patch of pink in the city

If you’re a flamingo in love, don’t get too attached. This is not a bird accustomed to sticking with the same partner over multiple breeding seasons. In The Thing With Feathers, Noah Strycker puts the flamingo “divorce rate" at 99%, a far cry from the deeply faithful albatross, which, when it loves, loves for life.

They may be fickle with their mates, but flamingos have shown an unexpected fealty to Mumbai. Large flocks have been recorded in the city since the early 1990s, but they’ve been around for at least a century before this. In the first Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, dated 1886, an unidentified Englishman writes about shooting two flamingos in “one of the creeks of Bombay harbour". He continues in a more poetic vein: “A flock of flamingos in-flight, with the sunlight on their red and white plumage, is a lovely sight. They usually fly in a rather irregular wavering line, the centre birds much higher than the flankers; and I have heard a flock likened to ‘a drunken rainbow’". In 1893, the Journal reported: “The Flamingo is very common in Sind; it is not uncommon near Bombay, and occurs as far south as Ratnagiri."

There are six varieties of flamingos; two of them are found in India. These are the Greater Flamingo (taller, pink bill with black tip) and Lesser Flamingo (shorter, dark crimson bill). They fly in to Mumbai from Kutch in Gujarat, their primary breeding ground, and from Sambhar Salt Lake in Rajasthan. Some may even be expatriates, from Pakistan or Iran, though we don’t know for sure yet. The Bombay Natural History Society, or BNHS, has recently started ringing (attaching a tag to the bird to enable individual identification), and GPS tagging of flamingos is expected to start soon as well.

The birds start arriving in September. Most of them settle in the extended Thane Creek, a triangle bounded by Airoli on the top, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) on the Navi Mumbai side, and Sewri on the Mumbai city coastline. You can spot the birds at Bhandup; at Lokhandwala; at Uran, Airoli and Seawoods in Navi Mumbai; and at Sewri, though the ongoing construction of the Mumbai Trans Harbour Line (MTHL) means the Sewri Jetty is inaccessible. They live on mudflats and estuaries and creeks, wherever they can find the blue-green algae that’s a staple of their diet. They feed, feed some more, perform mating rituals like their signature group dance—one of the funniest sights in nature, with dozens of bobbing heads and pink bodies sashaying on spindly legs, like a curtain call at a fashion show. Then, from May, they start heading back to Kutch and beyond to breed.

Flames on the water
The closest you’ll get to the birds in Mumbai is on a boat. There’s only one official flamingo boat tour, conducted by the Coastal & Marine Biodiversity Centre (CMBC) at Thane Creek. It started a year ago, around the time the creek was designated a “flamingo sanctuary".

We arrived, bright but not early (trips are dependent on the tides; ours started at 11.30), at the CMBC premises in Airoli. The boat was a 24-seater with a mixture of amateur birders and neophytes. One of the passengers, a retiree, said he ran his own nature club, and that some of them were going to Bhigwan, near Pune, to see more flamingos later in the month. As the boat chugged to life, we could see flamingos fly past, skimming the water, just beyond the mouth of the clearing that opens into the creek.

Within minutes, there was a burst of oohing and aahing. A large flock of flamingos dotted the creek’s border on our left—too far away to appreciate without binoculars, but still a thrilling sight. From then until the end of the trip an hour later, there wasn’t a moment when we couldn’t see flamingos. The birds stood in large groups, occasionally walking a few steps and dipping their necks to feed. From time to time, some of them put on a show, taking a few running steps on the surface of the water and launching into the air, soon joined in formation by a dozen others.

Our captain and guide, Shahid Bamne, kept up a steady patter. “They came early this year, and in greater numbers. Most of them are migratory. They come here to eat and go back to Gujarat." The mention of the state may have reminded him of something, because he added, “Let’s see which party comes to power, Rahul’s or someone else’s." Even on the open water, it’s an election year.

Flamingo count
A fortnight ago, a six-digit number sent a ripple of excitement through Mumbai’s birding circles. The BNHS began a census in May last year—the first to cover the entire flamingo habitat in Mumbai, says project in-charge Rahul Khot. The numbers from October to December were similar to earlier estimates of the flamingo population in the city: 45,999, 50,008, 53,598. In early February, they received the numbers for January: 121,935. Mumbai, through some design and a lot of luck, was home to over a hundred thousand flamingos.

I meet Khot at Hornbill House, the BNHS headquarters in Kala Ghoda, which was constructed in 1965 and retains a slightly wonky old-world charm (one of the files on Khot’s desk simply reads “frogs"). “Exciting, exciting," he says when I ask him about the census. “So far no one has given this number of flamingos in Mumbai. The maximum was 60,000-70,000—and those were estimates." But he also stresses that they’re just a few months into a 10-year study. “Once we have the complete data, it’ll be possible to do statistical modelling and see which factors are affecting the bird population—quality of habitat, pollution, heavy metals, drought..."

Both Khot and Sunjoy Monga, conservationist and author of Birds Of Mumbai, believe the drought in Gujarat last year may have something to do with the increase in Mumbai’s flamingo population. “Birds move," Monga says over the phone. “If they find a place conducive, they come there in large numbers. But this might be temporary."

Why do flamingos keep coming to places like Bhandup, with its waste treatment plant, and Sewri, with its industries and construction? It sounds crazy, but what we think of as “pollution" actually has a role in attracting flamingos. Waste matter and sewage in Thane Creek helps in the formation of the blue-green algae that’s the mainstay of the bird’s diet. Monga speculates that’s why they started flocking here in the early 1990s. “It might have to do with the refineries and industries causing gradual warming of Sewri Bay—not temperature, but general warmth of ecological settings resulting in profusion of algae and other organic growth. We have created a condition which might be called perfect levels of pollution."

Flamingos are a hardy species but there’s always the danger that pollution levels could cross a threshold beyond which it will start harming the birds. Khot says their 10-year study will throw light on this: By comparing region-wise population statistics with data from the BNHS marine life department, they can understand where the birds are concentrating and what their habitat and diet in these places are like. “Of course, developmental projects will have some impact," he says. “Untreated sewage discharge and heavy metal contamination is a concern. But flamingos live in other places with heavy industries, in Mathura, in Gujarat. So they have some tolerance."

There are other worries. A few cases of flamingo poaching have been reported in the city, and of the birds flying into high-tension wires and being electrocuted. More worrying is the construction in and around the flamingo sanctuary. Sewri Jetty—once the prime spot for flamingo viewing in Mumbai—has been closed since last year because of the work on the MTHL, which will connect Sewri to the Jawaharlal Nehru Port. There has been a visible decrease in flamingos near the jetty this season.

Khot says they’ve moved to the other side of the creek but adds that this could be temporary, given the examples of the nearby Vashi and Airoli bridges. “You can see flamingos right along those bridges, under them," he says. “So we might see that as the (MTHL) construction progresses, they may come back." It was also reported last week that a committee chaired by Union environment minister Harsh Vardhan had given wildlife clearance for a bullet train corridor to encroach upon the Thane flamingo sanctuary (3.27 hectares of forests from the sanctuary and 97.51 hectares of land close to it).

Conservation’s poster bird
Despite starting off my second flamingo-sighting expedition on a hair-raising note by pointing to thick brush some 30m away and saying “This is where they released the snakes", Prathamesh Desai proved to be an excellent guide. He would often stop mid-conversation and ask me to look in the direction of a trill or a chirp. In the 2 hours we spent roaming Bhandup, we saw a Temminck’s Stint, Little Ringed Plover, Northern Shoveler, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Rosy Starling and Purple Sunbird. We also saw, from the shore of the creek, a large flock of Greater Flamingos, and a solitary Lesser Flamingo.

While the boat had gotten closer in Airoli, being able to look at the birds through binoculars, with my feet planted on the ground, allowed for more leisurely contemplation. The flamingos also had both legs planted on the riverbed—their preferred stance while feeding (the famous standing-on-one-leg pose is when they’re at rest). Seen through binoculars, the birds revealed themselves as both beautiful and bizarre-looking, with the soft pastel shades of the body and elegant curve of the neck ending in a decidedly inelegant curved beak and a malevolent orange eye. It reminded me of a description of the bird by Kay Ryan, in her poem Flamingo Watching: She seems unnatural by nature—too vivid and peculiar a structure to be pretty, and flexible to the point of oddity.

On the way out, Desai—who works with tourism firm Mumbai Travellers and runs a club called Birds of Thane & Raigad—mentioned an allied issue: mangroves. The tree, which lines much of Thane Creek, is a natural barrier to erosion. But various projects—the coastal road, the MTHL—have resulted in mangroves being cleared. “To bring the idea of conservation to the common man, you need something attractive," he said. “If you bring more and more people to see flamingos, you are also making people aware that if you destroy their habitat, the birds will go off."

Monga can recall a time in the late 1970s when a solitary flock of flamingos was a notable sighting in Mumbai. “I stay in Lokhandwala," he says. “For 15 years, I haven’t seen a single flamingo in the creek behind my house. Now it has 200 of them some days. Malad Creek has 2,000-3,000. Obviously, they’ve spread." We may not know exactly why flamingos are flocking here in large numbers, or whether this is an aberration. But, for now, there’s a minor pink revolution happening in the creeks of Mumbai.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. 

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