“Birds are exceptionally good indicators of our living environment, so learning about bird behaviour provides opportunities to understand the delicate web of life and its practical ways,” says K Mrutyumjaya Rao, a self-taught ornithologist from Kakinada, East Godavari, in coastal Andhra Pradesh.

Having pursued ornithology for forty years, Rao, at the age of 76, is still active in his mission to preserve birds’ habitats in remote locations.

Even though Andhra Pradesh has bird habitats like Kolleru, Pulicat, Naupada swamps, Telineelapuram, Coringa mangroves, Godavari and Krishna estuaries, there is ample scope for conservation of ecological niches teeming with wildlife.

Astonishing sight

Most bird habitations are under threat due to human intrusion, unethical aquaculture, excess tourism and a persistent push for pesticides in agriculture. However, there is a ray of hope in Uppalapadu Bird Sanctuary in Guntur district where the inherent strength of Nature to rejuvenate itself has protected it from abuse, explains Mrutyumjaya Rao, a former Wildlife Warden in Andhra Pradesh.

Thirty years ago, in 1989, when information first reached Rao that hundreds of birds had congregated at a small village, he set off to find out what was happening. On arrival at the nondescript village of Uppalapadu with barely 4,000 residents, he was astonished to see over 10,000 birds of various feathers creating a din with their rasping tweets and calls.

Mostly, egrets, herons and cormorants were making nests, breeding and brooding around a large village waterbody. The reservoir was teeming with birds perched on trees and greenery was evident as the far as the eye could see.

As a devoted naturalist, impressed by the bounty of birds, Mrutyumjaya Rao started visiting the secluded site and took up the responsibility of keeping a regular tab on bird behaviour and seasonal changes in the landscape, with the help of the local people. After retirement in 2004, Rao actively pursued his passion for ecological issues and devoted more time to Uppalapadu and its conservation.

Uppalapadu village is located 7 km east of Guntur town and 37 km south of Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. The chance discovery of unique Uppalapadu avian wetlands by Rao had become an obsession for him. Between 1989 and 1997, Rao noticed changes in the variety of species with each passing season and also increase in bird species, from 12 to 75.

Pelicans and painted storks also started to arrive in large numbers and there was always clamour for space to make their large nests. At the same time, there was a growing unrest among the villagers as they believed that the birds were infecting the waters with their excreta and polluting their village pond.

Rao, with the help of the local authorities and forest department officials, educated the villagers on the advantages of harmonious living with Nature and encouraged tree planting and conservation. Various local authorities helped the rustic folk of Uppalapadu gain access to clean tap water for drinking, under the rural development scheme. This single act made the villagers more receptive towards conservation of the habitat for the birds and, in fact, help build bunds and plant more trees.

More space needed

Originally, the 30 acres of village reservoir was harmoniously utilised both by the people and birds. Over the years, when the number of inhabitants of the Uppalapadu village increased, the habitat suitable for nesting got reduced to a mere nine-acre pond and mud mounds. With the shrinking of the reservoir, the limited space has become prime property for the birds as they struggle to build their large nests to lay eggs and raise their chicks.

At this juncture, the forest department took over the water reservoir in 1997 after convincing the villagers who had even given up their panchayat land for the endangered birds. Particularly, pelicans and painted storks thrive in the village, welcome as they are in the bird protection centre of Uppalapadu.

N Rama Chandra Rao, DFO of Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh, says the forest department will be happy to develop the Uppalapadu bird habitat. The present nine acres is insufficient for the increasing numbers of nesting birds and they need much more space.

Pelicans frequent inland and coastal waters where they feed principally on fish harvested from rivers and lakes, even by flying distances of 10-20 km.

“In the future, we will make all efforts to increase the acreage of the surrounding area to accommodate more birds. We have even built steel structures in the middle of the lake to help the pelicans build their big nests and have estimated that at least 5,000 pelicans visit Uppalapadu during winter,” he says.

“I am glad that the forest department has appointed two caretakers from the same village to look after the small but splendid sanctuary for pelicans and painted storks,” says Mrutyumjaya Rao.

The writer is a wildlife enthusiast and photographer based in Noida