I am a birdwatcher from Indore. I have been birding actively for years – whenever the opportunity arises, I make my way to the wetlands found around the city. I often go to the Yeshwant Sagar Lake, around 25km from Indore City. It is a freshwater reservoir spanning around 14,000 hectares, formed by a dam on the Gambhir River. The lake is surrounded by fields of wheat, soya bean, corn, pulses and vegetables.
It is a popular spot for birdwatchers – the backwaters have plenty of shallow areas and reed beds, good for waders and other waterfowl. Many species of ducks, herons, ibis, jacanas, swamphens are seen round the year. From July to September one can see large heronry (nesting colonies) of Cattle Egrets, Little Egrets, Intermediate Egrets and Little Cormorants in the village adjacent to the lake. Around the same time, one can also see huge colonies of Baya Weavers nesting on the Babool (Vachellia nilotica) tree. As the water level recedes in the lake in summer season, many islands are formed, which serve as great nesting sites for the River Terns and Little Terns. The shallow water pools with submerged vegetation and the reed beds attracts a large number of migratory birds in winter. Ducks such as the Northern Shoveller, Northern Pintail, Gadwal, Cotton Teal, Garganey, Brahminy Shelduck arrive in large numbers.
But it is because of the year-round presence of Sarus Cranes around the lake that Yeshwant Sagar has been a designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) since 2002. The Sarus Crane is the tallest flying bird in the world. Both male and female birds are grey, with red heads and necks, although the adult males are slightly larger. The Sarus Crane is the state bird of Uttar Pradesh, but it is also found in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. With an estimated 8000-10000 birds in the Indian subcontinent, it is categorised as a vulnerable species by the IUCN.
In my numerous visits to the lake, I have never missed seeing these majestic birds, roaming in the vast agricultural fields on the periphery of the lake. I have been going there to observe them since 2008. I have always been fascinated by their charming courtship displays, and their sheer size – they can grow up to 1.8m in height, attain a wing span of around 2.5m and can weigh up to 10kg.
The first time I was struck by their sheer beauty was in 2009, when I was birding with my son and we saw a pair of Sarus Cranes foraging in a field. The birds find plenty of food in the lake and adjoining fields – they feed on a variety of roots and tubers as well as vertebrates and amphibians. As we approached, they became aware of our presence and started to move away. We decided not to proceed any further – instead, we just lay down behind a reed bed and waited patiently in the hope of seeing them up close and capturing some good photographs. To our utter surprise, they came quite close to us and we had the chance to make a wonderful set of snaps of them foraging, calling and dancing. Another occasion that comes to mind is a time when I was hiding behind a bush to take some photographs of a Pheasant-tailed jacana, and from nowhere, a pair of Sarus Cranes suddenly flew very low above me and landed nearby. That was the first time I really comprehended the enormous size of these birds. Although I couldn’t take any photographs of the moment because of the reeds between us, I felt blessed to see these huge birds right next to me.
I usually visit the lake area on Sunday mornings all round the year – more often in winter months, when the resident bird species like the crane are joined by their wintering migrant cousins.
Just at the peak of the summer season, one needs to travel long distance within the dry catchment area of the dam to see large gatherings of Sarus Cranes. In the month of June-July these birds congregate in large flocks; numbers ranging up to 40-45 birds are documented. Their breeding season begins with the onset of the monsoon. Around this time, pairs indulge in a typical courtship dance and their calls can be heard from quite a distance away. By the end of July, the cranes start building nests around the periphery of the lake – large structures upto 2m in diameter, constructed on high platforms within the wetlands, made entirely of grasses and other wetland plants. Both parents select the nest site and help build the nest. Nesting continues till about October. Most often, a pair of Sarus cranes raises one chick successfully, from a clutch of 1-2 eggs. The juvenile moves with the parents for almost a year, till the next breeding season arrives.
In fact, Yeshwant Sagar is one of the few remaining refuges of the Sarus Crane in Malwa. For years now, large congregations have flocked around the lake to feed, breed and to roost. In 1998, K.S. Gopi Sunder (Director of the program SarusScapes, at the International Crane Foundation) reported observing more than 170 Sarus cranes in this habitat in the late 1990s.
But in recent years, as I was visiting Yeshwant Sagar regularly, I noticed some instances of encroachment into the Sarus crane habitat. Increased anthropogenic activities like fodder collection, the burning of reeds which are good hiding places for the bird, intensive farming on the wetland beds after the monsoons, overuse of pesticides and insecticides, and intensive cattle grazing are some of the threats these species now face.
Fishing in the lake causes some disturbance to its habitat and is also potential threat. And although the Sarus crane is not poached (it is treated more like a sacred bird), chick predation by stray dogs is another looming threat. Transmission lines passing near the lake cause injury and death to the Sarus Cranes too.
I witnessed a decline in Sarus Cranes numbers between 2010 to 2014, so when I would make birding trips to the lake with my friends, I tried to focus on protecting the nesting and breeding sites of Sarus cranes in the area. I started working with “The Nature Volunteers”, an NGO that is actively involved in wetland conservation, to help conserve the bird’s habitat.
Initially, we wrote letters and tried to meet the Indore Municipal Corporation authorities in an attempt to try to draw their attention towards increasing encroachments in the area and the widespread practice of reed-burning. But when nothing came of those efforts, we eventually decided to take matters into our own hands. Two-three of us would visit Yeshwant Sagar every fortnight, and while documenting the Sarus topography, we also started to interact with the villagers of Hatod, Kajuria and Fulkaradia, all situated in the vicinity of the Lake. We gathered the local people and tried to persuade them to abstain from poaching and the burning and cutting of reeds.
As part of an ongoing drive to educate and sensitise school children, we visit nearby government and private schools. We interact with the students and tell them about the importance of water bodies, and the life and shelter it provides to various living organisms. We regularly distribute posters and pamphlets that highlight the importance of avifauna, with special focus on Sarus Cranes. We hope that these efforts will help raise awareness and safeguard the bird’s habitat. In one of these meetings, the Indore Municipal Corporation staff posted at the pumping station of Yeshwant Sagar also became involved.
We also provide guidance to farmers about the ill effects of using pesticides on crops, as the chemicals can poison the birds. We are also planning to arrange a session on organic farming for the nearby villages, so that they can understand the advantages of farming without pesticides and fertilisers.
In late-2015, we arranged for Dr. Asad Rahmani (Former Director, BNHS and an eminent birder) to visit the area and asked him for guidance on the conservation of Sarus Cranes in the area. Dr. Rahmani was overwhelmed while looking at this wonderful Sarus habitat. He congratulated us on our efforts and told us that the bird would be safe here as long as there is harmony between them and humans. That harmony should not be disturbed at any cost.
As the Sarus Crane population is dwindling in other regions of Malwa and many of the birds’ wetland habitats continue to shrink, this lake is an important site for the conservation of these birds in the region.
In my view, the recent interventions by our NGO and other like-minded people, have helped check the decline of the Sarus population in the area. We have not witnessed any decline in their numbers in the last two years; they seem to have stabilised. This year, there are approximately 60-75 individuals at the lake.
I will try my best to protect the habitat in and around the Yeshwant Sagar region so that the Vulnerable Sarus Cranes can exist in harmony with the communities in the region, breed successfully, and flourish forever.