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And quiet flows the Chambal

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Pratincoles or swallow plover on the banks of the Chambal river. Dharmendra Khandal
Pratincoles or swallow plover on the banks of the Chambal river. Dharmendra Khandal

MAKING for a liquid border between Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the Chambal river flows full and quiet, and is about an hour's run from the Ranthambhore National Park. On the suggestion of young botanist Dr Dharmendra Khandal, we spent about four hours on the banks of the Chambal, spotting birds. The early hours of the October morning were quite cool as we broke journey at Chhan village in Khander tehsil for a cup of tea. "Ye baar barish achcha tha (The rains were good this year)," said the villagers, as we sat chatting under a peepul tree.

Chhan village is known for chillies, informed Dharmendra. We parked our vehicle near an abandoned forest guesthouse and climbed down the bank to the river. Farmers have taken over vast stretches of the bank (on the Rajasthan side) till the water's edge for sowing mustard (sarson), with the crop expected in March. A standing mustard crop with its yellow heads waving in the wind is an annual beauty show. Using a diesel pumpset, a farmer was lifting water from the river for his fields and Dharmendra inquired of him about gharials as the Chambal nurses a gharial sanctuary. "Aage ja ke mil saktha hai (You may spot the gharial some distance away)," the farmer said though that day we did not sight any.

A wind was blowing across the river as we walked our way to the junction where the river Parvathi flows into the Chambal. Along the river bank, Kishore Rithe and Dharmendra spotted a red shank, a little ringed plover, a pied wagtail and a crested lark; one stared long at the little ringed plover (Charadrius dubius). It is a typical plover, says Dr Salim Ali, "with thick head, yellow legs, short bill, black band around neck separating white neck collar from back." However, the best sighting was of the small pratincole or swallow plover (Glareola lactea). Kishore identified them though it took some time for one to separate the birds from the sandy earth. We counted about 70 pratincoles at one spot and Dharmendra got busy with his lens. Dr Salim Ali describes them, "as a sandy grey riverside bird with pointed swallow-like wings and squarish (slightly forked) tail; underparts rufous-tinged sooty brown, belly white; a black band from eye to bill." They did not call and flew away en masse when we got too close, to settle on the floor a few feet away.

Then came two black-bellied finch-larks (Eremopterix grisea), the size of a sparrow. Providing its field characters, Dr Salim Ali writes: "A small, squat, thick-billed crestless lark; male sandy brown above, black below, with ashy crown and whitish cheeks." The birds test one's patience being hard to spot by untrained eyes. Kishore Rithe, Dharmendra and I spent more than 30 minutes watching the flock of small pratincoles as they sat snugly in small pits made on the river bank; in some cases, only the necks stood out from the depression.

On the way back, we met a farmer, Ramphool, who offered us tea. He used to live within the Ranthambhore National Park and got resettled near the Chambal. He has no complaints, as life has been good to him.

We noted about four long-billed vultures flying over the Aravalli hills from our Gypsy, but they were too far off for the cameras. We had started at around six in the morning and spent about four hours beside the Chambal, and at least for me it was better than the time spent on a Canter in the Park; of course, there was the disappointment of not being able to see the gharial.

Mornings at the guest-house, where we stayed, were quite fruitful. On the first morning, sitting on the lawns, one watched tree pies and drongos taking the first rays of the sun atop a dried up tree. Sipping tea, one mused over two golden orioles (Oriolus oriolus) making their way on the grass, a few feet away; the orioles looked brighter than those one sometimes locates in Borivili; followed the squirrels and the babblers making their way all over a bakul tree. There is one thing about Sawai Madhopur it is clean, less noisy and wears a wintery freshness.

It was midnight when Kishore and I landed at Sawai Madhopur station; the station is a small, well-maintained affair with garish Government offices absent. Outside, the autos stood in a queue and none jumped at us; rather, they waited for us. The talk was polite and our driver took us to the guesthouse without any fuss. Perhaps, the local populace wants to keep the tourist town neat to impress the foreign tourists; shops selling costly hand-made clothes and trinkets are run by men (no women) who at least pretend to be civilised; they station their men on the Ranthambhore road to nab tourists without pestering them.

One shop-keeper was honest to admit a drop in the quality of tourists (foreign and Indian) over the years with most just keen on spotting a tiger in the Park before hitting their rooms to booze. "If they do not see a tiger they try again and again; they are not interested in any other animal, " said one shopkeeper.

P. Devarajan

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 4, 2005)
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