The Hunter Among the Reeds
Bad practices and habitat loss are affecting birds that inhabit city landscapes.
Written by Prasad Natarajan
Before the stone benches were installed at Hebbal lake, during summer we were able to access the tiny islands. Water used to recede and we were able to walk on the shores, sit up in bamboo shades and watch waders at close quarters. However, in the past few years a lot of work has gone into this lake and many of the islands stay submerged in summer as well. About three years ago, when I had visited this lake in peak summer, I had spent the whole day watching the waders.
It is always a great idea to make notes of our observations, especially as an artist. I also make fast study sketches, which become finished works later in my studio. When I look back on these notes and sketches, I am transported back in time and scene. So too, it was an artwork I had done on an interesting hunter back that took me back in time. I had spotted about five to six Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea) during that visit, and since then I have been able to spot either one or sometimes none.
Grey herons are long, their body is usually grey in colour and hence, the name. Adults have a white head with a broad black patch on the crown area and an extended black thin crest. Their beak usually has the upper end in shades of soft grey and the bottom yellowish. In breeding plumage, their beak turns crimson with shades of yellow. A long beak enables them to spear through the fish and other prey. Their neck is S shaped which a great adaptation for fishing. Their long legs help them in wading through shallow waters easily. A long wing-span helps them cover great distance; however, their flight is slow.
They feed mainly in fishes, frogs, lizards and young birds. They stalk their prey and remain in stealth mode for long periods, letting the prey come to them in many occasions. When the prey is at striking distance, with quick spearing motion the heron strikes its prey leaving the prey bleeding to death.
With polluted lakes, dwindling fish, disappearing frogs, the Grey Herons are facing a big challenge in adapting to urban environments. Also, since they lay eggs in reedbeds, not many of our manmade lakes are conducive for their breeding. Long grass and reedbeds provide these long waders excellent habitat to stalk their prey and at the same time provide them with breeding ground. The same grass is however used as cattle feed at most lakes, with no law which prevents people from cutting them down. These grasses are also beautiful nesting material for Baya Weavers and other birds. Hence protecting them is really vital for the bird kingdom on the whole.
Steps have been taken in several lakes to de-weed, however since most of the drainage water seeps through the lakes, within few months of de-weeding, the lakes are filled with weeds again. Hence, we need to address the root cause rather than settling for temporary solutions. Only when researchers, engineers and authority come together and work in co-ordination, this is possible.
Going back to three years ago, as I sat sketching the reeds, I heard the Coots splashing, rushing out of the thick reeds. It was getting dark, with excitement I eagerly looked forward for the encounter with this hunter from the thick reeds. Sure enough, the Grey Heron slowly made his way out and provided me a few moments during the close encounter to sketch him. The resulting image displayed here is a free reference image, while the reeds are from my field sketches.
Due to the constant flow of water into lakes like these and seepage of drainage water, the reeds have disappeared from the lake. With the habitat gone, so also are many of our winged friends who once used to frequent these parts of the city regularly. In the context of cities like Bengaluru, encroachment of lakes is a major concern, as many wader species depend on these bunds and swamps for nesting.
The great backyard bird count conducted in India last year saw around 838 species recorded by citizens across wetlands, national parks and urban habitats. But this is only a rough estimate and the actual numbers could swing to either side. Back in 2015, IUCN had placed 180 bird species of India under the Red List of threatened lot. It has been reported that in Asia, exploitation of birds for human use is among a major threat to many species. A large part of this is for consumption of meat while a good number also ends up in the captive bird market.
Most of us know that the presence of birds indicates a healthy ecosystem with good flora and fauna. The birds provide environment services like keeping down insect and rodent populations, pollinate and disperse seeds, etc. But as habitats vanish under pressures of human population, birds in cityscapes are disappearing too. The common Grey Heron too, which is known to be very adaptable, seems to be finding the going tough.
The writer is an independent wildlife artist and enthusiast.