Ever since the pandemic shut down movement, ours has been a strange relationship with the outdoors. The pain has been even worse for Noida residents, who, earlier used to thronging malls and bustling markets, are left with nowhere to chill out at in the absence of grand gardens and monuments (as in Delhi), and vast spaces to cycle and hike in (like in Gurgaon). However, they say, in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. And in much the same way, in the middle of the dense concrete jungle of Delhi-NCR, lies the Okhla Bird Sanctuary.
Notified in 1990 but largely underexplored even in its thirtieth year, the little expanse of verdure teeming with rich avian life, spread over 400 hectares, reopened recently in phase 4 of the Unlock process. With reports that negligible human interference has led to a marked improvement in the place's ecology, including the number of birds spotted and cleaner water in the wetlands, the time is right to make that much-delayed visit.
Among Barbets and Hornbills
The pleasant environs of the sanctuary resound with birdcall throughout the day and birders can spot common cuckoos, blue-tailed bee-eaters, streaked weavers and Indian golden orioles. Among the forty-odd resident woodland species patrolling the premises are the brown-headed barbets, coppersmith barbets, black drongos, Indian grey hornbills, spotted owlets, striated grassbirds and yellow-bellied prinias. As for the migratory birds, 2018 saw a record 25,000 birds flocking the shores here, including raptors such as peregrine falcons and serpent eagles. With the migratory bird season set to begin (October-March), do not forget your binocs and camera home!
Let the Lake Slake You
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Over half of the sanctuary, located at the point where the Yamuna enters Uttar Pradesh, is made up of the still blue waters of a water body. There are trails by the side of the lake, flanked by sheesham, kikar and Ficus trees, where one can experience calm and a blissful solitude. Try finding the sitting decks fashioned from the old boats that would earlier be used to patrol the lake. You could even pack a light lunch and eat it at the bank—but remember not to litter.
Plenty for The Gram
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Time for a Superspecies! This is a Gray-headed Swamphen that I found in a swamp in my hometown in India last year. I'd seen this bird for the first time and a fellow birder I met told me that this was a Purple Swamphen. Was he wrong? Absolutely not, because a Gray-headed Swamphen is one of the 6 species that make up the Purple Swamphen superspecies! Sounds confusing? Here's a basic explanation. Simply put, a superspecies is a type of species complex, which refers to a group of species that are very similar and closely related. In the case of different species that form a superspecies such as the Purple Swamphen, speciation occurs when biological populations of the same species become so geographically isolated from each other that gene flow cannot happen. With conditions varying significantly in separate geographies, the two or more (in this case, 6) populations undergo major genetic changes in response to selective pressures. They become distinct enough to be unable to reproduce when two members of the different populations meet - which means that they are effectively different species. So, as far as Gray-headed Swamphen go, this species of Purple Swamphen is found primarily in the Indian subcontinent, as also in parts of China and Thailand. A population is also found in Florida as a result of accidentally being released there.
As with any protected habitat, the Okhla Bird Sanctuary is a favourite with photographers and documentary filmmakers from all over the state and the national capital too. While camera charges are applicable based on the type you’re carrying, you can skip the extra charge if you choose to click with your smartphone instead. And there’s plenty to capture, including the colourful vegetation, a bamboo bridge, watchtowers in addition to the winged inhabitants of the sanctuary themselves.
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The sanctuary has undergone several additions including washrooms and installation of solar panels. Concrete measures have also been implemented to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including thermal screening, permitting entry only for those wearing masks, and installation of signboards exhorting visitors.
Nearest Metro Station: Okhla Bird Sanctuary on the Pink Line
Entry fee: Indians Rs 30; Foreigners Rs 350
Still camera fee: Indians Rs 500; Foreigners Rs 1,000