Dr. Salim Ali’s love for birds was so well known that once a cartoon strip mentioned him by saying, ‘Come, let’s fly a little low; if we are lucky we may be able to spot Salim Ali!’ His poetic descriptions of birds and love for them was unmatched. He would go to deserted islands just to listen to their songs. Take a tour of two beautiful bird sanctuaries named after him with Gangadharan Menon as he remembers the legend.
There are two bird sanctuaries in India named after the father of Ornithology in the country, Dr. Salim Ali. One of them, Thattekkad in Kerala, teems with the birds of the land; and the other, Chorao in Goa, is rich in birds of the water; thereby covering the entire wingspan of bird life, and making it the perfect tribute to a man who celebrated bird-watching for close to 80 years.
Salim Ali was a legend in his own lifetime, and a cartoon in the early 80s illustrated that. It showed a group of Siberian cranes flying over the Bharatpur sanctuary, with the leader of the group saying, ‘Come, let’s fly a little low; if we are lucky we may be able to spot Salim Ali!’
Once, when he was all of 10, he wantonly shot down a sparrow in the jungles of Chembur, Mumbai. To his amazement he discovered that it had a yellow streak in its throat, just like a curry stain. He carried the bird home, but even his uncle Amiruddin, the resident expert on birds, could not identify it.
With a letter asking for help, Salim reached the office of the Bombay Natural History Society to meet the secretary, Walter Millard. The affable Walter instantly identified the bird as the Yellow-throated Sparrow, and then took Salim to the museum cupboards where he opened drawer after drawer to show him a few hundred stuffed specimens of birds found in the Indian Subcontinent. And this sparked off a fire in Salim Ali that burned for over 80 years,and threw light on the lives and times of hundreds of birds. From the Himalayas to Arunachal Pradesh to Rajasthan to Kanyakumari.
With his poetic descriptions of birds, he hooked many bird lovers; and I am only one of the legion of bird lovers he has fathered. The call of a Malabar Whistling Thrush would be described by him as the ‘Whistling of an idle school boy who’s happy to have bunked school’.
The shy and elusive behaviour of the Malabar Trogon was described as ‘A bird so conscious of the bright colours on its front that when you approach it to photograph it, it would instantly turn away, and show you its dull, boring back’. And instead of describing the call of the Lapwing as ‘ti-ti-tiwi’, he would say it sounds like ‘Did-he-do-it’? These poetic expressions and light-heartedness are abundant in ‘The Fall of a Sparrow’, a brilliant autobiography he wrote at the age of 80.
His undiminished love of the winged wonders was evident till a few years before his death at the age of 91. When he was 88, he travelled by a Naval Ship to the Andamans (and he had the blanket permission to travel anywhere in India in any mode of transport, including those of the Armed Forces!). He disembarked on an uninhabited island, and stayed there alone watching birds for six days and six nights, till the ship came back and took him back to the isle of his birth. It was not to write any paper on any bird at the dusk of his career, but because his soul was still yearning for the call of the birds.
In one of his sojourns into the South, Dr. Salim Ali discovered the bounty of bird life in Thattekkad, which according to him, was the richest in Peninsular India. At his behest, it was declared a Sanctuary in the year 1983. Later, he was to accord the state itself the status of having the richest and the widest range of birds in the whole of India. The probable reason for this could be the absence of industrialization (a case of the reds helping the greens!), or the diversity of its habitats: sea, estuaries, backwaters, rivers, evergreen forests, deciduous forests, rolling grasslands, the works.
My first trip to Thattekkad was in the year 1992. Those days, the road from Kothamangalam came to screeching halt at the Periyar river. And from there a boatman used to row you across in a canoe that looked like it was hastily built.
Last year, when I made my second trip, I got an unpleasant shock when the car I was travelling in didn’t come to a halt at the river, but sailed over a bridge. It was easier transport, but the mysticism of being rowed across to your destination was gone forever.
Welcomed by a repertoire of bird songs, we walked to a well-appointed office set in the middle of a dense forest formed between two of the tributaries of the Periyar river. Climbing two flights of wooden stairs we reached the Tree Top House that was to be our forest home for the next few days. As I glanced through the window I saw a perfectly camouflaged flying lizard on a tree in the distance. And as if to welcome us, it came flying across and perched on the tree right next to the Tree House, giving us the perfect photo-op.
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We set out bird watching in the late afternoon. There were 270 birds to spot in that birding paradise. We managed to spot around 75 in three hours. Some of them we saw; but most of them we only heard. That’s when I remembered Dr. Salim Ali’s dictum: “Learn to identify a bird by its call. Because, first you hear it, and then you see it. And many a time, you don’t even see it.”
The next day was our tryst with the Ceylon Frogmouth, an endangered bird that’s endemic to the Western Ghats. No guide ever guarantees any sighting ever; but Maani assured us that he would show us not just one, but three, of these rare birds. He took us to a patch of forest where quite surprisingly all the plants had dried up leaves. Amidst them were three birds, so perfectly camouflaged that only Maani’s eagle eye could have spotted them. Being nocturnal birds they couldn’t see in broad daylight; and they were staring at us without seeing us. It was a threesome: father, mother and chick. We clicked away to glory, and got some pictures that were really up, close and personal.
Floating in the backwaters of Mandovi and Mapusa rivers are four beautiful islands: Chorao, Divar, Jua and Cumbarjua.
Situated in the mangroves of Chorao is probably the smallest bird sanctuary in India: Dr. Salim Ali Bird sanctuary, measuring just 2 square kilometres.
As we took the ferry from Ribandar, we could see the sanctuary across the river and it looked like any other mangrove forest. It was only after we landed there and walked along the one-kilometre pathway that we discovered that it’s truly a panoramic forest. At every turn the landcape was different; and there were as many as 14 different species of mangrove plants, submerged but surviving in the intricate maze of canals that run through the sanctuary. Some of these specially adapted plants were breathing with the help of roots that were jutting out from the tidal waters, like periscopes.
The place abounds in resident wetland birds like plovers, herons, sea gulls, sandpipers and kingfishers. And many migratory birds like pin-tail ducks and ruddy shelducks make this their winter home, every year.
As you walk on the pathway beautifully laid out along the periphery of the mangroves, you witness a dual truth: on the left of the pathway, along the backwaters, is a long stretch of plastic garbage which is man’s gift to nature. And on the right are pristine mangroves in its greenest finery, which is god’s gift to mankind.
So when I saw a small bunch of school kids cleaning up all the mess as part of their social work programme, I knew Dr. Salim Ali would be smiling behind his grey beard in quiet appreciation.