By Ahmer Ali Rizvi
THE wetlands of Pakistan are rich in wildlife, hosting a large number of migratory waterfowls that arrive from Siberia and Russia. Every year, during winter, millions of water birds leave their ice-covered home grounds to escape the harsh winter and dearth of food. These birds move in large numbers towards warmer regions and return home at the onset of spring.
Pakistan is one of the significant hosts for these winter visitors. A large number of fresh-water birds prefer the inland water spreads of Sindh and Punjab provinces. Huge populations of shorebirds are also housed in coastal mud-flats and the tidal estuaries of Sindh and Balochistan.
As a result, those with an interest in nature and wildlife can enjoy bird-watching and photography round the easily accessible wetland sites. Haleji, Hadero, Kinjhar and Manchar lakes are popular resting places for immigrant birds in Sindh.
I am always keen to explore new locations where a variety of migratory birds can be sighted. Right from the seashores to inland lakes, I have visited many sites for bird-watching. I usually find an unusual gathering or undiscovered specie of birds at out-of-the-blue spots.
The tidal marshland adjacent to the Mai Kolachi Bypass is one such spot that surprised me with its turnout and variety of water birds. One Saturday, I was crossing Boat Basin to go to Queens Road when I caught a glimpse of many wading birds far back in the swamp bed, at the left side of the road. Sadly, I had no time to stay, watch and identify them. The next morning, before sunrise, I was there with my garb, gear and goodies. I planned to walk around the swamps and discover the significance of the nearby mud-flats. I had read and heard about unusual visitation of migratory shorebirds in this area many times, but never had an opportunity to watch the site in detail.
After parking my jeep near the railway crossing, I took out my gear. The weather was fine with no wind or fog — the ideal climate for bird-watching. Walking along the pavement, I first started watching with my 7×35 binocular at the far ends of a particular water-patch. Soon, I spotted eight flamingos at the western edge, while four were wading in the middle. Many Grey Herons were also there in that particular part of the bog. They seemed exceptional in size. I also spotted a few ducks at a distance, but the specie could not be identified. This was an exciting moment and I decided to get closer, sit on a higher position and watch the ducks and other birds in detail through a powerful scope.
Soon after, from a suitable vantage point, I took out my 20×50 spotting scope and tried to spot the ducks. I could now identify the specie as female Teals. Their necks were tilted back which meant that they were resting. Four female Mallards were also resting nearby. The sun was about to rise when I scrolled my binocular up in the sky and caught sight of more flocks of ducks, too far to be identified. As soon the sun came up, the resting Teals were also airborne.
To spot and identify other small birds, I moved my scopes slowly at length to the far bank. I was astounded. There were hundreds of Godwits, Sandpiper, Curlews, Whimbrel and Dunlins, and remarkably thousands of Stints wading all along the shore. I never expected such an enormous population of shorebirds at a place so close to the city.
There were many other species of Waders and marine birds but most of them could not be sighted with the help of the naked eye, except the large-sized flamingos, pelicans and herons. One thing was quite interesting — all birds were grouped closely together with their cousins but only the Grey Herons stood apart. After roughly looking around the wetland from one end to the other, I took out my notebook and started counting the birds specie by specie.
There were 23 Gray Herons, 20 Reef Herons, 12 flamingos, 6 pelicans, 18 Cormorants, 16 Teals, 4 Mallards, 17 Stilts and a single Egret. The Waders, in large numbers, could not be counted accurately, so I counted 50 birds of each species and then estimated their gathering accordingly. As per my estimation, there were more than 200 Godwits, 150 Curlews and Whimbrels in mix groupings, 200 Sandpipers and 300 gulls. Many large and small flocks of Godwits and Stints were also flying in and out of that particular slough. As time was passing, I observed that the congregation of Waders, like Godwits, Sandpipers, Curlews, Whimbrels and Stilts, were increasing remarkably.
After enjoying the sight for about two hours, I pick up my gear, crossed the road and started looking over the backyard. There were several small and large-sized ponds at the right side of the road. These ponds contain a series of thick mangroves that support the nesting place for many birds. The first pond I started watching in was abounded by hundreds of Stilts and Godwits. Numerous Cormorants were also swimming and dip-diving to catch fish, while a few others were sunning themselves over the shrubs. More or less, 50 Sandpipers were also feeding under the shady mangroves. I moved further ahead and checked the other roadside potholes. Every water spread contained a number of wading and swimming birds.
The exceptional attendance of shorebirds in the Mai Kolachi area indicates this site as a peaceful wintering area that abounds in food for a variety of water birds. During the course of about three hours, I observed that all the birds were not as alert as the birds in the wetlands of interior Sindh. They were quite calm and inattentive to human presence. It indicates that hunters and poachers rarely disturb this site. The reason may be the dangerous marshland that keeps hunters from entering.
The only threat to the bird population here is from rapid construction. Contamination in the form of oil spills from ships in the harbour may also affect the birds’ visitation.
During winter, the people of Karachi can easily enjoy bird-watching and snap-shooting of these esteemed guests within easy reach. The best time to watch for these birds is fifteen minutes before sunrise till three hours afterwards. An hour before sunset may also be very rewarding as many of the roaming birds return to their abodes. A powerful binocular and a camera with a zoom lens can make the trip worth the effort. Camouflaged garbs are essential and so is to keep your back to the sun.