A royal reserve of nature

By Mark Brazil | May 31, 2000

It is a rare occasion, in a busy schedule, that allows me to spend a whole morning doing almost nothing, but this is one of those times. As I write, I am enjoying the sunshine and the view from the roof of a stone summer house. My sleeping quarters are down below, cool in the shade, but those I have abandoned in favor of the roof, for its view out across Junia Lake in India’s Rajasthan Province.

The first morning sounds to reach me as I settle in to absorb the rural ambience are the chatter and laughter of several women and girls from the local village, who are using sticks to pound their washing on stones at the water’s edge.

Then I notice a harsh argument developing between an old man and a goatherd; it’s clear from the old man’s body language that he is haranguing the other for hacking down the branches of one of the few remaining old trees in the neighborhood, to feed his bleating herd. The voice raised in anger creates a disturbing eddy in the array of sound around the lake.

From the village behind me the calls of the muezzin, the bleating of goats, and the cries of children echo down streets so narrow that Japan’s seem positively broad. The deep lowing of water buffalo grazing on the marshland vegetation along the far shore reaches me as the bass accompaniment for the human voices, and the noisy chittering of a flock of cliff swallows. Since dawn, the swallows have been leaving their night-time roosts in extraordinary mud nests cemented under the balcony of my room, and have been flittering and swirling up over the lake in search of airborne insects on which to feed. From their activity, there seems to be plenty of food for all. Now, a thousand or more of them hurtle around me like swarming insects.

In an arid region like Rajasthan, whenever the slightest growth of grass appears it is soon grazed to within millimeters of the soil by roaming herds of domestic stock. Even the valuable shade of trees is being sacrificed in favor of providing fodder for livestock. It is amazing that there is any room for wildlife at all. Yet, not only does India have a population which dwarfs that of Japan (it just topped a billion), it also has many impressive national parks and nature reserves, and some impressive animal and bird life.

Despite its rich variety of bird life, Junia Lake is neither a national park, nor a specially protected nature reserve. The fortuitous presence here of an old palace and summer house, and the princely family that maintains them, have helped preserve the area’s environment. It is like having a private nature reserve outside one’s window.

As I watched the scene before me, other species made their entrance. A honking flight of 20 or so pale-gray bar-headed geese flew in from the north, almost certainly newly arrived migrants from across the Himalayas, heading south into the subcontinent for the winter. Three spoonbills, glistening even whiter than the sun-bleached blue-white of the sky, flew sedately around the lake, following their elongated spoon beaks in search of muddy margins to wade in.

A large slow-moving shadow across the water caught my attention, and I looked up and exchanged glances with an Indian white-backed vulture. Its glance was dismissive, for despite the increasing heat of the day I was clearly not moribund enough to attract more than passing attention.

Neither its huge raptorial shape nor its shadow caused much consternation down below, yet that of the much smaller marsh harrier certainly did. As the harrier glided in over the reed-fringed edge of the lake, it flushed dozens of birds ahead of it. First to go were the shorebirds. A greenshank noisily “tew-tewed” the alarm, and suddenly the sky filled with frantic flocks of ruff, of zigzagging snipe, alarmed black-tailed godwits and redshank. As the panic spread, it eventually reached the coot out on the water. They burst into a mad pattering, scattering in all directions in a desperate effort to escape from danger. Their lobed toes tore at the water, trying to generate sufficient speed for their short wings to lift their plump bodies into the air. Meanwhile, the wintering groups of duck also took flight, the teal with a swift spring, and the wigeon and pintail soon followed them.

For the most part, all the waterfowl and shorebirds flushed out by the harrier would be familiar sights at any of Japan’s major lakes or rivers, but Junia Lake boasts a greater variety of kingfishers. Whereas the only kingfisher one is likely to see in Japan is the electric blue flash of the diminutive common kingfisher, here I had repeated glimpses of the chestnut, white and turquoise of the large white-breasted kingfisher, and the boldly black-and-white lesser pied kingfisher too. All three kingfisher species lingered around the lake, perching on stones, overhanging branches and even on my balcony railing.

The kingfishers were not the only birds in search of fish at the lake. Orange-beaked Indian river terns, heavy-set gull-billed terns, and the more diminutive and graceful whiskered terns all patrolled endlessly back and forth a few meters above the water, in search of piscine prey.

As I enjoyed the rare experience of a morning without rush, I grew accustomed to the bird sounds, and eventually tuned out the distant human voices, but there was one sound that I puzzled over for hours. This rhythmic “poop-poop” seemed to be coming from the trees, and after dismissing the possibility of a hoopoe, I surmised that it must be a forest frugivore, somewhat akin to a woodpecker and known as a barbet. I laughed later, when I finally identified the call. It turned out to be not an animated barbet, but the mechanical sound of a water pump in the village beyond the trees.

Just one of the many bewildering sounds that is India.