Our story begins on a warm, sunny day in late February this year.
A tourist bus turns off from the Bikaner – Jaisalmer highway at Phalodi and rattles its way towards a village called Khichan. As the bus passes a sign announcing that Khichan was just a kilometer away, excitement mounts. Sunglasses are readied as are cameras and binoculars. Soon the group will be seeing what they have come to Khichan for — to see the Demoiselle Cranes, which migrate here to escape the harsh winters of Eastern Europe.
Everybody in the group is a birding enthusiast. Everybody, but one person who is frankly quite bored with all the bird talk going around and trying to be as indifferent as possible to the contagious and palpable excitement filling the bus. That person is me.
As soon as the bus stops, the group tumbles out looking all around them. “Where are the birds? Where are the birds?” they demand. A local, who is passing by points vaguely and mutters “across that rise” at which the group sets off purposefully in that direction. I trail behind the group, dragging my feet and looking disinterestedly around me.
As the first of the group crests the rise, sounds of “Ooh ! Look at them, there they are”, floats back to me. My steps quicken of their own accord and in a minute I am over the rise myself and get my first glimpse of the Demoiselle Cranes. And stop in my tracks so suddenly that I almost slide all the way down to level ground.
The sight of so many live birds outside of a TV screen or a photograph is a sight that I am never going to forget for as long as I live.
The birds are quite some distance away and I use my camera zoom to try to get a better look at them and take some photographs too. I have just taken my second photograph (see the one below), when a commotion begins.Lowering my camera, I see that some over-enthusiastic members of my tour group are marching purposefully to where the birds are grouped for a closer look. And the remaining half of the group is calling them back with loud “come back, come back, or the birds will fly away”.
And in the blink of an eye, that’s exactly what happens. A restless shuffling among the birds, a couple of fluttering wings and the birds take off. I am left looking at this.
Our tour manager is livid, but the damage is done. The local who had pointed out the site of the cranes says rather mournfully that the cranes will not return for an hour or so or till they feel it is safe for them to do so. Since we do not have the time to wait for the cranes to return, our group decides to leave.
It is an angry, diffident and rather shame-faced group that gets back into the bus. Everyone avoids everyone else’s eyes. Our group is also avoiding the angry looks of other tourists who have gathered at Khichan for crane watching and have now been cheated of it. As for me, I am still to recover from the “now-I-see-the-Demoiselle-Cranes-and now-I-don’t” tryst I have just experienced. I check my camera to reassure myself that I had indeed seen these birds.
As the bus makes its way out of Khichan to rejoin the highway to take the road to Jaisalmer, I try to recall all that our tour manager had shared about the special guests that Khichan plays host to every winter.
During the months that the Demoiselle Cranes are at Khichan, the villagers take care of the birds by feeding them grain in specially built enclosures or chugga ghars, and ensuring that they are safe from dogs and other predators. For more information on how the birds are fed and the amount of grain used to feed them every day, please click here. Khichan also receives bird lovers, ornithologists, and tourists whenever the beautiful birds are there.
I am very disappointed at having got just 3 minutes with the cranes and wish that I had got to see more of these graceful birds.
At a personal level, this sighting of Demoiselle Cranes has kind of changed my attitude towards birds and bird watching from a polite indifference to a somewhat newly awakened interest. While this does not mean that I am going to get up at an unearthly hour to go birding, it does mean that I am interested in knowing more about the avian world and extend my limited and rudimentary knowledge beyond the world of sparrows, crows, pigeons, parrots (or is it parakeets?).
And maybe, just maybe, the next time someone shouts “look, look” or “look at that… yellow-footed, green-tipped, purple-bellied, orange-collared, blue beaked, red-eyed, white-cheeked, black-shouldered… bird”, I just might turn around to see them, instead of rolling my eyes. 🙂