Waterfowl Census 2020: Bengaluru Lakes on the Brink

This is the unedited version of the final article published on JLR Explore, the official blog of Jungle Lodges and Resorts here

On a bright morning on the fourth day of the new year, an energetic, inspired yet concerned group of citizen volunteers and birdwatchers gathered at Venkatappa Art Gallery for a half-day workshop to kick start the 2020 waterfowl census in Bengaluru to assess the city’s lakes and wetlands.

The first waterfowl census was conducted by members of the Bird Watchers Field Club of Bangalore (BWFCB) in 1989. Successive efforts by the club have contributed to a keen awareness of the devastating effects of ‘civilization’ on our city’s lakes and their inhabitants — winged, scaled, gilled and others.

A Cattle Egret among alligator weed at Seetharamapalya Kere

This year’s census was no routine affair though. Thanks to the untiring efforts and unrelenting courtroom battles by the city-based Environment Support Group (ESG), the 2020 census was ordered by none other than the Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court in order to assess ‘the prevailing condition of lakes, from a wetlands perspective.’

Helmed by ESG and BWFCB, the stated objective was therefore to survey the lakes of Bengaluru as wetland ecosystems and waterfowl habitats.

Arnu and I volunteered for the survey this year along with 180 others. ESG, together with the doyens of BWFCB, some of whom had trained under Salim Ali nonetheless, the legendary “Birdman of India”, introduced volunteers to the demanding work that lay ahead. They shared the fascinating decades long history of the birdwatching community in Bengaluru.

Listening to them stoked my own distant memory of meeting ardent conservationist Zafar Futehally and his wife Laeeq, also Salim Ali’s niece, at their lovely farmhouse in Doddagubbi many years ago where they hosted regular meetings of the BWFCB.

Bagamane Kere

Serendipitously, the survey planned across four weekends, would end on the 2nd of February, a day celebrated globally as World Wetlands Day to mark the 1971 signing in Iran, of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands.

Wetlands are different from other forms of water bodies in that they host aquatic vegetation adapted to hydric soil or soil saturated with water, resulting in anaerobic conditions. They provide critical ecological services such as purifying and storing water, sequestering carbon, stabilizing shorelines, and serving as habitats for a multitude of plant and animal species.

A Golden Oriole at Seetharamapalya Kere

The organizers had designed the survey as a blend of on-the-ground, first-hand observations and smart online software to gather and record data that would then be submitted as evidence to the court, of the condition of the city’s lakes and the urgent and critical need to strengthen and implement restoration and protection measures.

We had opted to join the group that surveyed the lakes in East Bengaluru. Over a course of four weeks, the East Bengaluru team led by veteran birder A S Kannan, surveyed 13 lakes in the Indiranagar, K R Puram, Whitefield and Marathahalli belts.

We were able to join in surveying six of these lakes – Bagamane, Hoodi, Doddanekundi, Kaggadasapura, Kundalahalli and Seetharamapalya.

Early the next Saturday morning we set-off with our binoculars, hats and bird guide to join our motley group of lake surveyors. Our very first stop was Bagamane Kere, right next to the swanky Bagamane tech park where I had spent a good four-and-a-half years of my corporate life.

Kannan, Rashmi, Regin and Poornima had assembled already. Hari joined in due course.

We were to observe the lake based on many parameters – water source, disturbances, development status, garbage and sewage dumping, bird population and sightings of other mammals, reptiles and fish species and several more.

Eking out a living in fast-dwindling habitats we humans defile and destroy – Black-headed Ibises and Grey-headed Swamphens wade in the sewage at Bagamane Kere

We sighted Grey-headed swamp hens, among the most beautiful water birds in my view, foraging in the foul-smelling sewage right near the sewage inlet pipe. Their purple forms glistened like jewels in the gentle early morning light even as they waded in the sludge and the muck with a couple of juveniles in tow.

Kannan and the others were busy doing block counts of many little egrets on the lake. We gradually progressed around the lake stopping to watch several more species such as black-headed ibises, black-winged stilts, sand plovers, Eurasian coots, grebes and many more. The lake, now a dump for untreated sewage and garbage from surrounding human habitat, however imperfect, was home to many water birds.

A dead fruit bat hung from the electric wire running along one side of the lake. A couple of curious schoolboys in blue uniforms walked up from behind the tech park compound and stopped by, wondering what we were up to.

Some of them caught sight of the bat, craned their necks and squinted their eyes against the sun’s rays and said, “Baahubali!” “Adu baavuli, baahubali alla,” I said. Baavuli is Kannada for bat.

On hearing of our purpose that morning, they helpfully offered that they saw many birds at the lake on their walk to school and back. They peered through our binoculars and marvelled at its visual magic.

Arnav, A S Kannan and other volunteers with curious school children at Bagamane Kere

We inched further along the lake behind the tech park watching for more birds. A purple sunbird’s nest on a tree along the shore caught our attention. Tailor birds, munias, ashy prinias, coppersmith barbets, a white-breasted kingfisher and many more winged beauties showed their presence around the lake.

The edge of the lake was littered with plastic and paper cups from the stalls along the compound wall behind the tech park where many employees came by for a cup of tea and some social smoking.

As we walked back to our cars to head to the next lake, we decided a group selfie was in order and posed along the fence of the lake trying to smile despite the foul smell, and finding little standing ground in the midst of the litter and the wet spots, obviously from human urine!

I had the task of filling-out the online lake status form. In went all the data – Is the lake being ‘developed’? How did we cover it, by foot or by car or any other mode and to what extent? Status of the bund, the lake margin, whether the lake bed was visible or overgrown, were there islands in the tank, water source, water quality, water usage, margin and foreshore vegetation, importance of the lake to birds, disturbances if any, threats such as dumping of garbage, industrial and sewage waste inlets, buildings around the lake and more.

Hari brought out a packet of sunshine yellow sponge cake that we all devoured together with some salted peanuts from Kannan’s backpack.

Kaggadasapura Kere was our next stop. A sprawling ‘lake’ with no water, profusely overgrown with vegetation and fully ‘developed’ with a jogging track laid all around it, it was bordered by high-end villas, luxury and moderate apartment complexes and industries all around.

Overgrown Kaggadasapura Kere

Untreated sewage entered the lakebed from Raja Kaaluves and sewage inlet pipes.

As we worked our way around the lake, watching for various bird species and noting the excess sewage and garbage, we couldn’t help catching sight of the gleaming Audis, BMWs and Mercs parked in the luxury villas to one side of the lake. The irony!

Walkers were out for their morning stroll. Three runners jogged past us. One of them, recognizing us as birdwatchers, stopped and offered helpfully that we would sight painted storks if we went further ahead. They were practicing for the upcoming Mumbai Marathon, we learnt. They would pass us a couple of more times as they completed their mileage for the day.

Here again, children approached us. Perched on their cycles, they were curious to know if we were tourists, outfitted as we were with cameras and binoculars.

On hearing of our purpose, they eagerly offered that the area had several snakes too and that we should never come here after dark, if we had such plans.

“What about birds? Do you see many birds too?” we enquired. “We do see several birds though we don’t know which birds they are.”

As we approached one end of the lakebed, we saw foam floating towards us in the air and into some of the balconies of adjoining apartment buildings. Sensing what lay ahead, we increased our pace and soon came by a fence with a small board that announced the services of “Renu’s Parlour”.

A large sewage canal lay beyond the fence chock-full of snow-white froth. It screamed industrial sewage, as is the case whenever there is foaming. We all stood watching in dismay at the ugliness and sadness of it all.

The scene captured on our cameras, we moved on, feet laden and minds desolate.

Foam from industrial effluents at Kaggadasapura Kere

An old lady soon approached us further ahead. We were again mistaken for desperate tourists loitering around a derelict lake.

On learning about the survey, she brightened and said, “I hear that there are several bird species recorded in this lake. Can someone revive this lake? It feels sad to see the state it is in,” she said.

Many more species, native and migratory recorded, it was time to fill-out the lake census form again.

Doddanekundi lake was the next on our list for the day. Glistening glass facades of several global multinational corporations loomed beyond the large lake. The searing heat from the mid-morning Sun was beginning to tire the group out. However, generous sightings of a large variety of migratory and resident water birds was our reward for the toil.

Doddanekundi Kere

I brought out my stash of chikkis and we proceeded further, hydrating ourselves and munching on delicious squares of peanut chikki.

Several purple herons, cormorants, Eurasian coots, garganeys, northern shovelers, resident spot-billed ducks, lesser whistling ducks, red-wattled and grey-headed lapwings, black-winged stilts, little, intermediate and cattle egrets, paddy field pipits, Indian pond herons, wood sandpipers, great cormorants, bronze-winged and pheasant-tailed jacanas, a western marsh harrier and many more resident and migratory species were a treat to watch on the vast expanse that was Doddanekundi Kere.

Alligator weed grew in plenty in certain portions of the lake. I chatted-up a lady sitting by the lakeside with a big bundle of alligator weed by her side. “They are fodder for my cattle,” she said describing the trouble of wading in waist-high water to harvest the weed.

Harvest of alligator weed for cattle fodder at Doddanekundi Kere

There were cattle grazing among the weed. A few of them lumbered along on the walking path. One curious sort followed us for a bit, nudging a few of us and trying to sniff at our cameras.

Doddanekundi Kere had a vast expanse of water and appeared to shelter a large species of birds. It filled us with hope after the two previous lakes that were in a deplorable condition and poor excuses for lakes or wetland habitats.

The lake status form was duly filled again, amidst bites of crisp chakkuli handed around by Poornima.

Hoodi Giddana Kere

The following week, it was only Kannan, Poornima and I. We surveyed Hoodi Giddana Kere, Kundalahalli Kere and Seetharamapalya Kere. Of these, Kundalahalli Kere appeared to be well-maintained though completely ‘developed’ with a jogging track all around. Two massive pylons rose from the lakebed carrying high-tension wires. One of them appeared to be a favourite spot for roosting cormorants with many perched at various heights.

Cormorants were pretty much the only bird species we found at Kundalahalli Kere. The shore had mostly monoculture vegetation with Singapore cherry trees all around. The lake did not host any sort of emergent or floating vegetation for water birds to nest, roost or wade.

Nevertheless, the fact that BBMP was actively maintaining the lake and keeping it free of garbage and sewage was a big plus. For once, we enjoyed the serene, peaceful and clean environs of the lake.

A well-maintained but ‘developed’ Kundalahalli Kere

In contrast, despite the dumping of garbage and sewage, Hoodi and Seetharamapalya Kere hosted a better diversity of aquatic and shore birds, thanks to the emergent and floating vegetation, and the mixed shore vegetation.

A Grey-headed swamphen among sewage and alligator weed at Seetharamapalya Kere

A large banyan tree on the shore of Hoodi Kere teemed with several bird species including barbets, mynas, flowerpeckers, a female Asian koel, a pair of golden orioles and many more. A lively flock of barn swallows kept us enthralled with their aerial acrobatics.

Bran Swallows rest on electric lines at Hoodi Giddana Kere

We moved on to survey Seetharamapalya Kere where we watched a few purple sunbird pairs among the many giant milkweed plants (Calotropis gigantea) that grew on the bund. A Blyth’s reed warbler kept us guessing about its identity as it flitted from branch to branch with its tail fanned out. A plucky golden oriole warded off attacks from a flock of drongos as it sat feeding on one of the trees on the shore.

A male Purple Sunbird on a giant milkweed plant (Calotropis gigantea)

A pair of Eurasian coots squabbled and chased each other on the lake as a juvenile followed them around. Possibly a domestic tiff!

Many more teams of volunteers set aside their weekends to survey Bengaluru’s lakes and probably had similar stories to report back – of wonder, fascination, and dismay in the same vein.

It is a surprise that our sorry excuses for lakes and wetland habitats are still deemed worthy of annual visits by many migratory bird species, though dwindling in numbers as the years progress.

Birds, mammals, reptiles and fish are feeding, breeding, rearing offspring and trying to eke out a living in fast-dwindling habitats we humans defile and destroy with our waste.

Seetharamapalya Kere

Valiant and concerted efforts by citizen groups and concerned individuals over the years have not been able to stand in the way of burgeoning real estate development, thus shrinking common spaces, choking natural habitats within Bengaluru and inching out all other life forms in the city to oblivion, gradually at first, but now rapidly.

While citizen initiatives such as the waterfowl census backed by the highest court of the state may not entirely salvage Bengaluru’s lakes, it is one big step in the right direction, which may nudge the government agencies to implement and tighten regulations, keep common spaces truly common –even for species other than homo sapiens, and consciously accommodate other lifeforms within the precincts of Namma Bengaluru, rather than give-in to the pressures of privatization — of parks, lakes, wetlands, grasslands and forest patches.