SHALLABUGH - As curling flakes of snow start falling from the sky, a small flock of geese takes to flight in this north Kashmir bird reserve.
The geese are headed for Wullar Lake, Asia’s largest fresh water lake, further north in the state’s Bandipora district. Before fresh snow covers the landscape, the young flock of geese must collect their share of water chestnuts from the lake.
There are other species of migratory birds at the Shallabugh Wetland Reserve, in Ganderbal district, including mallards, teals, pochards, shovellers and coots - all jostling with each other for their share of food. The scene is similar in the other wetland reserves of Hokarsar, Mirgund and Hygam in Kashmir.
The squabbling over food this year is more pronounced because of the huge number of migratory birds that have come here this winter from far off Siberia, eastern Europe, the Philippines and China to spend the winter in the Kashmir Valley’s comparatively less harsh conditions.
‘The evening cackle of these avian visitors is very soothing, especially for the villages around the wetland reserves,’ said Habibullah, 65, a keen bird watcher who lives in Chanduna village, close to this bird reserve.
Although bird shooting is banned in Jammu and Kashmir, poachers still pose a grave threat to the safety of the thousands of birds that inhabit the wetland reserves this winter.
‘Migratory birds fly very low especially in the evenings and the mornings, and that is the time the poachers take pot shots at them,’ said Habibullah.
‘It is not possible to escape the vigil of the wildlife protection staff inside the reserves, but once the birds leave for the lakes and rivers outside to feed, the poachers are always waiting for the kill,’ said Habibullah, who was himself a keen bird hunter once but gave up shooting after it was banned.
‘This is our heritage and if we fail to preserve it for posterity we will have committed the greatest sin,’ he tells his grandchildren who spend their winter holidays listening to the duck tales of their grandfather.
‘In earlier days, we would shoot an odd goose once in a while. Nobody then shot birds as the poachers do now for commercial purposes.
‘Migratory birds can be purchased at many places, though it is done on the sly because of the ban on bird shooting,’ the bird watcher rues.
As the clouds loom low, a large flock of teals flies over the village close to the bird reserve.
‘The teals fly like the supersonic jets. They make booming sounds. Coots, wigeons and the pochards are the less speedy ones among the migratory birds,’ said Shabir Ahmad, 34, another villager living close to the bird reserve.
Each year migratory birds come to the valley covering thousands of miles from far off lands.
‘Their arrival starts by the middle of October and they start leaving the valley by the middle of April.
‘The migratory birds are a marvellous example of navigation by instinct. It is always the eldest bird, which is acquainted with the aerial route, that is to lead the flock.
‘The leader is followed by a co-pilot who takes over in case the leader is injured or tired. Nature has bestowed these birds with tremendous navigational skills.
‘They fly hundreds of miles without any food and water. The journey is so exhausting that a goose weighing around six pounds loses more than half its weight by the end of the journey,’ said an official of the wildlife protection department here.
‘Coexistence is the only solution to the survival of humankind,’ says Habibullah.
‘By watching the flight patterns of these birds and their ability to withstand the vagaries of weather, one gets an idea about their struggle for survival.
‘The planet belongs to every living creature and they are totally dependent on one another.
‘The deer without grass and the tiger without the deer cannot survive in the forest. This proves that although the tiger is not remotely connected with grass, its survival essentially depends on it,’ Habibullah explains to his grandchildren before he starts narrating another of his duck tales as bedtime story for the children.
(F.Ahmed can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)