There you are, sitting at the edge of a large jheel or tank, idly watching the setting sun gild the waters to pure molten gold and the dragonflies conducting their final, shimmering patrols before settling down for the night. Then you prick up your ears: What’s that? It sounds like a faraway crowd of people murmuring, and it’s getting louder — as if they’re approaching. No, it’s not a bigoted mob out for blood, because you love someone they think you shouldn’t. Astonishingly, it sounds like a friendly, chatty contented crowd. Then you see it, right there on the horizon: a line of wavy black dots approaching. Gradually they get bigger, their conversation more excited and raucous. And then, you see the long wings beating steadily up and down as the echelon heads your way.
There’s more than just one echelon — there are several following. Some in wavy lines, others in a classic ‘V’ formation. By their language, you know they are cranes — probably either common cranes or demoiselles. As they come overhead, they suddenly peel away and begin to lose height, following each other in small groups. And then, with a hop, skip and jump, lightly touch down on the water. Some of them prance a little with the joy of having arrived at their destination, then raise their heads, trumpeting their delight for all to rejoice.
Sometimes, of course, all you really hear is the sudden jet-whine of speeding wings — high above are fastback-winged ducks, mere specks still, soaring across the sky. Suddenly (realising perhaps that they have arrived!) they curve their wings, side-slip, ‘whiffle’ and tumble down, down, almost uncontrollably to shed, perhaps, 500 feet of altitude in seconds, making the butterflies go topsy-turvy in your stomach! They zoom down en masse, on boomerang wings and touch down far too fast than you would imagine, brake splashily with those webbed feet, and then wag their tails in approval of a job well done. Any air traffic controller watching them would go pale, clutch desperately at his or her heart and keel over!
It’s impressive enough when the visibility is good, but watch, for example, bar-headed geese, grey as mists, suddenly materialise over your head in the thickest of winter fogs and touch down on water. It sort of takes your breath away (when you remember how many fog-bound flights have been diverted). And these are not hop-skip-jump flyers — they’re high-flying marathoners. Try trekking (without acclimatising) at 10,000 feet and you’ll be huffing and puffing and complaining of headaches in no time. Some of these guys — the bar-headed geese for example, have been seen cruising at around 30,000 feet — the sort of altitude an Airbus is at home in. Their respiratory system is a marvel of engineering — ensuring a steady, non-stop supply of oxygen to the muscles while both breathing in and breathing out. (I doubt even yoga’s single-nostril trick has managed that!) Some of them have flown, perhaps 8,000 km, all the way from the steppes of Siberia and Central Asia where they bred in summer, and will have brought their grown-up babies along on this expedition.
They use the sun (and night-flyers, the stars) to navigate, besides the earth’s magnetic and gravitational fields, and ‘leading lines’ such as river courses, coastlines, mountain ranges and even expressways to guide them precisely to their favourite haunt — that lakeside you’ve discovered — year after year. They’ve figured out that by flying in the classical ‘V’ they can conserve energy as the air currents generated by each bird will benefit the one behind it. The lead bird has to do the hardest work, but, no, they’re not selfish; they swap lead positions when the leader tires (rather like airline crews having strict duty hours). They may cruise between 50 to 100 kmph (depending on their size) at altitudes between 500 and 1,000 metres. Most will have several stop-overs en route, where they will relax and refuel before setting off again. Some set off in enormous flocks, while others fly solo or in small groups.
If cranes, geese, waders and ducks are impressive enough, think about the tiny-tots who do this! Suddenly, one morning, you wake to find a strange little brown bird, cheeping in your garden or a smart grey-and-white fellow sauntering about on the lawn wagging his tail with all the élan of a landlord. Where the heck did they come from?
Some of them, again, have probably come from faraway Siberia and Central Asia. This achievement is really mind-boggling. The birds may barely tilt the scales at 10 gm. Toss a paper plane in a breeze and see how it flies (it’ll rapidly unfold and crash), and think of these tiny feathered bundles facing up to sweeties called Irma and Maria!
And just as you enjoy your annual leave, to your ‘native place’ or whatever spa or resort you’ve picked (and hopefully have been paid your LTA), these birds fly down to our lakes, tanks, rivers, parks, coasts, woodlands, forests, beaches and gardens for just the same reason: for rest and recreation. Most will have faced considerable challenges en route: from the weather to predators and battalions of guns aimed at them. Many (especially the waders and waterfowl) are casually attired, shedding their glamourous courting formals for the season. And, again, like most us who basically want just a clean room and bathroom, decent food, and, perhaps, a dazzling beach; all they really want are clean, peaceful surroundings where they can spend the winter snoozing in the benign buttery sun, with a decent buffet at hand.
Surely that is not too tall an order to fulfill.