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Nature is under siege from Uttarakhand's forest fires

By Geetanjali Krishna
May 03, 2016 09:14 IST
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'When I read that the blaze has engulfed the beautiful oak and pine forests around Kumaon's Lake District, my heart bled,' says Geetanjali Krishna.

IMAGE: The blue throated barbet feasts on insects, flowers and fruits. Photograph: Kind courtesy Koshy Koshy/Creative Commons


Uttarakhand, especially the hills of Kumaon, have been under the grip of widespread forest fires.

When I read that the blaze has engulfed the beautiful oak and pine forests around Kumaon's Lake District, my heart bled for I fondly remember the idyllic summer I spent there, when I was introduced to the pleasures of bird watching.

Meandering through the emerald lakes of Sattal and Naukuchiatal, a brand new copy of The Book of Indian Birds by Salim Ali in my hands, I found myself totally immersed -- and totally at sea in the fragile world of birds.

Initially, as all fledgling birders will attest, my attempts at bird watching were frustrating.

Most of them went like this: "Look! A Coppersmith Barbet!" the guide would say.

"Where?" I'd cry, desperately scanning the dense foliage in which the tiny bird was camouflaged. "It's flown off now," he'd say. "Didn't you see it?"

Out would come my trusty bird book, and I'd see the bird in question in the photographs, wondering how such a vividly-hued creature had escaped my less-than-eagle eyes.

Down in bird land

IMAGE: The Sattal Lake in Bhimtal, Uttarakhand, is surrounded by pine and oak trees. Photograph: Kind courtesy Alosh Bennett/Creative Commons


Over the next few days, I improved marginally. However, I continued to be amazed by the crazy birders at the camp I was in, arguing themselves hoarse over exactly which type of tit they'd seen -- when no one but me found the name unfortunate.

Eventually, when I managed to see and identify a couple of mostly common birds, a glimmer of hope was born that all matters ornithological won't always remain an impenetrable mystery to me.

Today, as reports of devastation in Sattal (and whispers of the timber mafia's involvement) trickle in, I remember it as a haven for birds.

A cluster of mysteriously interconnected seven freshwater lakes in what I like to refer to as Kumaon's 'Lake District', it is set amid oak and pine forests where all manner of birds, migratory and local, reside. I spent many a happy hour there, hiking from lake to lake, or as they're locally known, tal to tal.

Green bee eater

IMAGE: The green bee eater is characterised by its green colour and peculiar tail. Photograph: Geetanjali Krishna


One of the first things I learnt was that one sees the best birds not while blundering noisily through the forest, but when one's patiently sitting in one place. This is what I did to study the antics of a pair of Asian paradise flycatchers, small white and black birds with, wait for my first birding word, rufous plumage (deep red feathers for the uninitiated).

Their extravagantly long tail feather must have made flight a little difficult, but looked extraordinarily festive.

For hours, I watched the monogamous pair swoop gracefully across the forest canopy and catch insects mid-air.

It was breeding season, and from the way they were guarding their nest, there were clearly some eggs in it. I found it fascinating that they built their nests close to drongos, attractively fork-tailed birds that aggressively guard their territory against predators.

Naukuchiatal, the nine-pointed lake about 20 km from Sattal, has also been badly affected by the fires.

In fact, Vishal Vir Singh, a friend who is currently in the Kumaon hills, says, "The entire range from Kaladoongi to Bhowali and beyond is aflame. There is smoke hanging in the air and the visibility is terrible."

A walk down the rivers

IMAGE: Kumaon's Lake District is a haven for birds. Photograph: Geetanjali Krishna


I remember walking in those very forests and being mesmerised by the patterns that fallen oak leaves created on the forest floor.

I also have a vivid memory of its subtly scented air, which from all accounts is as good as it gets. And so, Singh's account is especially worrisome.

This network of lakes isn't just a pretty place to spend the summer watching birds -- it maintains groundwater levels, has been a permanent and migratory home to a plethora of birds as well as other fauna, and regulates air quality all the way up to Delhi. So it is of utmost ecological importance to the upper Himalayas as well as the neighboring plains.

Geological opinion is divided on the subject of when these lakes came up in the first place, but the commonly held belief is that they were created by glacier melt settling into deep valleys and hollows in the hills.

They are deep too -- Naukuchiatal is about 130 feet deep. I chatted with a fisherman there, who pointed out a snake in the water, holding its neck in the air like a snorkel. It swam to my side of the lake, and disappeared rather disconcertingly under some stones not far from where I was.

The water, he said, teemed with Mahaseer and Carp. "Twenty years ago, these waters were cleaner," said he, pointing to the usual tourist detritus of beer cans, chips packets etc that had washed up by the water's edge.

I remember even today, the music of a thousand tiny waves in Naukuchiatal. It will take a while for nature to once again reclaim the magical lakes of Kumaon. Till then, my memories of a halcyon summer there will have to suffice.

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Geetanjali Krishna
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