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In time to catch latecomers

A minute by minute account of a birdwatching expedition in the mangroves of Karachi -- a refuge to the late arriving migratory birds

 By BCP member Ahmer Ali Rizvi

7:10 a.m. on the last Sunday of January 2005. Expecting an extraordinary attendance of resident and migratory birds, a bird crazy friend and I reached the south-western bank of a large wetland adjacent to Sandspit. With temperature close to 9 degree centigrade, it was perhaps one of the coldest birdwatching days I have ever experienced. A cloud of mist rising from the cold water made matters murkier.

Locally known as the 'Fish Pond', it is undoubtedly one of my favourite birdwatching spots. I have spent many winter mornings at this marvellous site, sighting and observing various water birds. A prolonged severity in cold weather has led to a significant increase in migratory birds from upcountry wetlands to the marshlands in coastal areas of Pakistan. The value of such natural habitats along the coast has therefore multiplied manifolds since they provide refuge to the late arriving migratory birds.

7:17 a.m. Sun rose with burnished shades of red and purple clouds.

7:30 a.m. We stepped into mudfat and reached the embankment of the wetland after negotiating a knee-deep cannel of water. Initially, we chose to settle in mangrove bushes at the eastern bank with our backs to the sun.

Setting up blinds for a good birdwatching is a crucial task since many factors have to be considered, mainly the sun and wind direction. Knowing the environment and the routine flight path of birds well can make the experience more pleasant. Also a bird watcher must use the natural environment to camouflage himself, preferably in clothes that blend in with the surrounding.

7:45 a.m. Our optical equipment and other gear was set accordingly.

7:52 a.m. Excitement built as we got the first glimpse of a flock of 23 Reef Heron rising from the mangrove forest. They were so far from our blinds that we could hardly count them without binoculars. Reef Herons are the most common birds nesting in mangrove plants all the year round. After this many a flock took wing from the mangroves and moved towards the north-western bank of the sea.

8:00 a.m. A flock of five Curlews passed overhead, glided down and landed near a large cape just about 40 metres away. Obviously we had hidden ourselves well otherwise they would never dare to settle so close to human presence. As soon I turned my camera towards them, they flushed away making loud melodic chirps.

8:10 a.m. We saw a flock of 26 flamingoes gracefully emerge from the bushes behind us and glide to the left of our blinds at an altitude of 20-25 feet. At this glimpse of astounding appearance of wild birds, I realised that we were strategically placed in a pit-hole at the edge of the mangrove forest; visible to the birds only from the top.

Most water birds are vigilant creatures that never settle on spots where human presence or intrusion is possible; they stay far from the approachable banks. No doubt then a powerful optical equipment is essential to view a large and rare gathering of birds.

In the meanwhile, my eye was caught by the activity at the other end of the bank where the congregation of birds was multiplying as the sun's intensity increased.

8:20 a.m. Still shivering, we decided to break for a hot cup of tea. I took out the thermos from my kitbag, poured a cup for my friend who was craving for something warm. But as soon he took the first sip, his expression changed... I had forgotten to add sugar to the beverage. Sugarless, it was tea nonetheless.

8:27 a.m. Refreshed, I stood up and scanned the mangrove trees with my binoculars. To my utter surprise I caught the glimpse of hundreds of Great Cormorants approaching us. But they spotted us and took height in seconds. The flocks that were following also gained altitude just short of the edge of the forest. I was thrilled as this was the first time I watched such a large movement of Great Cormorants.

8:33 a.m. Next we spotted a large flock of Green-winged Teals winging through the air at the far end. Another flock appeared and landed in open water about 150 meters away from where we were stationed. Some sight it was... floating on the gentle waves of shallow water. I had not finished counting that another one joined in. I started recounting. There were seven males and thirty four females. Suddenly, they all fluttered away to the north-west. Thereafter, flocks of Teals and Mallard ducks appeared and disappeared at short intervals -- most of them emerged from the mangrove area and flew north-west to Sunhera mountains. Only a few opted to float in the water.

8:40 a.m. Once again, flocks of Great Cormorant flew from east to west, over the sea across the road. This activity continued for 30 minutes.

The turnout of wadding birds was increasing remarkably. Now, I was tempted to identify and count the birds clumping together at a distance. To make this happen, I decided to move to the edge of a large peninsula. Leaving my partner behind, I slowly waded in ankle-deep water to the closest possible spot. Setting my spotting scope on a mound, I paused for a minute to get my bearings right.

9:17 a.m. Here was the most gratifying moment of the day: I rested my eye on the spotter's eyepiece and saw a large crowd of multi-coloured birds -- Gulls, Terns, Sandpipers, Dunlins and Stints -- feeding, floating, resting and wadding leisurely along the banks of the sea. I gave up counting... innumerable, but I noted down their species and counted only the rare ones. There were 97 Godwits, 132 Black-winged Stilts, 24 Curlews, 11 Whimbrels, 16 Avocets, 21 Large Egrets, 47 Reef Herons, 18 Gray Herons and 13 Flamingoes.

9:55 a.m. I saw a flock of Sholveller ducks taking flight smoothly toward the sun. I couldn't watch them through my binoculars but roughly they were 12 to 15. Almost suddenly they took a U-turn and headed north-west, where the rest of the ducks had vanished.

10:30 a.m. We packed up and drove back to the city after a delightful birding expedition -- with plans to come again the next Sunday.

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