The buffaloes looked like they were fish, not beasts of land.
I was looking at a wetland – with buffaloes gazing at me contentedly from the water. Their faintly-furry skin provided the perfect background to masses of shining green water hyacinth leaves. It was a rare blue-sky day in the National Capital region. The November sun was pleasant enough to be warm. Flocks of Bank mynas – mynas that live near water, and are coloured a muddy grey with a startling orange eye patch—hurtled towards the buffaloes, landing on their heads and bodies. With all the time in the world, the mynas picked off ticks from the bovid’s bodies – a salon service and a meal all at once.
On the shore of the water, a farmer sat. Like the buffaloes, his eyes were half closed. And he too, was savouring the sweet winter sunshine. I sat on a bund next to the buffaloes, glad for once that I didn’t need to socially distance in this open area. I was looking for birds.
In the migratory season, you have to look twice at wildlife. Because what looks like a bird that’s always there, may be a totally different species – it may have come to India from Russia, or China, Eastern Europe or Africa.
And so, I was doing just that – looking harder at every wing and tail around. At the edge of the water, a Black-tailed stilt walked in a stately manner. These birds are black and white, and have long legs, the longest in proportion to their body size among all birds. Stilts walk with a kind of teetering elegance – their shivering legs looking like they can’t hold their weight. But behind the bird, sat something brown. Unmoving. A little ruffled, like it had given itself a thorough preening. This was a bird with bold stripes on its head, and an ornate rainfall of patterns on its body. The brown-gold-black markings made it look like a bundle of dried reeds swaying in the winter sun – a sense of motion granted solely by the intricacy of the markings. I had to look again. Was this a regular, resident bird? As I looked again, staying motionless next to the chewing buffaloes, I realized I was looking at a bird that had come from far colder places – Russia and neighbouring regions. I was looking at a Snipe, my first migratory waterbird for 2020.
I was thrilled. The wetland felt touched by an exciting intervention. The fact that the waters were important not just for the buffaloes, but also for birds touching down from other countries made the area so much more than it looked at first glance.
Scanning the surface, I also saw a new group of birds that had just flown in – Pied Avocets, that migrate here from Palearctic regions. Avocets have a long, thin beak that curves upwards. It is delicate and unforgettable; and their bodies are covered in flourishes of black upon white.
And just near the buffaloes, another bird searched for food. Not a stilt or a tateri bird, both of which are resident. This new bird poked the wet mud with its spear like beak, looking for things to eat. It would hardly hesitate in between its search, constantly hunting and seeking food—the hunger a long migration from Siberia brings. This was the wood sandpiper, not looking unlike a piece of mottled wood, part of a trunk of an old tree.
A buffalo grunted. The sun would set soon, and its last, slanting rays gilded the water. For a brief moment, the wood sandpiper glowed golden.
‘Chalo’, the farmer said to his buffaloes. A second earlier, they had their eyes closed, only their jaws moving. At his word, all of them opened their eyes. Forming a neat line, they clambered out of the water in single file. A young calf took a few moments longer to fish itself out of the wetland. The birds remained; as used to the buffaloes as the bovids were to them.
Everyone seems to love a fat buffalo. Some birds groom them, others swim peacefully around them, while yet others live out critical junctures in their life cycle—the business of survival after long, transboundary flights, near them.
Perhaps, the buffaloes know something we don’t – they are at peace with all birds. They do not attempt to tag them with labels of importance like ‘migratory’ or ‘resident’. I had made my migratory bird list, but the more common birds that always hung around the wetland were like old friends at the school cafeteria. Bubbly, comforting and never to be taken for granted.
Everyone is important as long as we can eat together. That, I thought, was buffalo wisdom.
Photos: Neha Sinha
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