Of birds and beasts, but mostly birds

Greater One Horned Rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park
Greater One Horned Rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park (Photo credit: WWF)

The first conservation area that I remember going to is the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan, India.
The first one I’d ever been to, however, was when I was very young. We went to Kaziranga National Park in Assam, famous for its Greater One Horned Rhinoceros. My family went on safari on elephant back. I, unfortunately, have no recollection of this treat. Besides, as it turns out, the elephant ride and the rhinos didn’t capture my interest. According to my father, who loves to tell this story, I was more interested in the cow that was crossing the road in front of our jeep on our way home, squealing “Ow! Ow!” with delight as soon as I saw it.

The Bird Sanctuary was one of my favorite things about living in Bharatpur. You could take a rickshaw through it – something I did, sandwiched between my grandmothers. There are two memories that stand out more that the others however.

Nasty creatures (Photo credit: WWF)

The first is of when we had family come to visit us, my maternal uncle, Sammy, being among them. My parents planned a bicycle ride through the Sanctuary for everyone. I got to perch on the crossbar of my uncle’s bicycle. Somewhere half way through the Sanctuary,while I was enjoying the view, the wind snaking its way through my braids and the view and stuffing my mouth with sweeties that I got the fright of my young life: A baboon, taking a fancy to my treat, jumped onto my uncle’s arm. Whether it jumped up from the side of the road or dropped down from an overhanging branch, I don’t know. All I  do remember is turning my head to find myself within 30 centimeters from a pink bottomed beast with its mouth wide open, fangs dripping saliva.

Presumably his mouth was watering with the anticipation of stuffing the remaining sweets into his mouth! I was too startled to do anything but stare. Before I could digest the fact that I was close enough to be well and truly mauled by a wild monkey that was probably rabid and carrying a number of other diseases, my uncle shook it off his arm and into the bushes. How Uncle Sammy did that without getting a single scratch, I’ve never discovered.

The second memory I have involves snakes: If India is a snake country, then Rajasthan is the snake state and Bharatpur its capital. My dad and I used to go into the garage after dinner and do a little snake bashing as a sort of father-daughter bonding ritual. It kept the family and the dogs safe; mum used to breed Irish Setters. Papa and I had our own sticks, with nails on one end. Come to think of it, I was pretty young to be snake hunting… whatever the case, that’s the memory I have. But I digress. The point I wanted to make is that I wasn’t afraid of snakes. Which was just as well as the Bird Sanctuary had area devoted to snakes. I remember walking into this area – everything moved for a second and then was still, as if the snakes were out and about and as soon as they saw us they all hid. The guide then took us to where one of the big pythons had its den. We got there as this massive snake was heading underground. The guide, quite unperturbed, grasped it with both hands and started pulling.

A few months later one of the guides was bitten by a python. I imagine it was the same one and that it was sick of being hauled out of its home every time some visitor wanted to get a good look at a live python.

I’m not as brave about snakes as I used to be, but my enthusiasm for birds hasn’t diminished. If anything, quite the opposite.

When I was 16, I went and volunteered at the Wetlands & Wildfowl Trust (WWT) Centre at Slimbridge, England, for the summer. I stayed on the grounds and worked predominantly at The Duckery, where the eggs of the more exotic and precious birds are incubated. It is also the home to some of the rarer birds in the collection and aren’t seen by the public, except on special occasions. Needless to say, it was an amateur bird spotter and conservationist’s dream summer job. What’s more, I even got to work with the Horticulture Team, working on the grounds, making sure the pens were comfortable for the birds and the bushes and trees weren’t getting out of control. It wasn’t all ducklings, goslings and watching eggs hatch, though. There was lots of manual labour involved, like trimming bushes and trees, scrubbing little artificial ponds, collecting wooden bird boxes while wading through mud that you sank into up to your knees (and consequently falling into muddy water comically slowly and getting lots of water into my waders, all while clutching said bird boxes), and building flamingo nests.

A Greater Flamingo
A Greater Flamingo

WWT Slimbridge has six species of flamingos: Greater, Lesser, Andean, Chilean, James’s and Caribbean Flamingos. Now, in the wild, flamingos build their nests out of mud. The Slimbridge flamingos however, have a tougher time building nests, than their wild brethren, as the mud is a lot harder than the mud in warmer climates. This means that the aviculture (folks from the Duckery) and horticulture teams have to don waders, arm themselves with shovels and walk a narrow, raised path to the flamingo island in the middle of the pond, to build the nests for the flamingos.

I managed to get to the island and back without falling off the path and into the water, or getting my clothes splattered with mud. I did however, nearly jump and swim for the other shore when I saw a gigantic earthworm – something everyone found highly amusing. And, it was really. I must have been the only volunteer they’ve ever had who tried to head for the hills whenever she saw worms – or leeches. Luckily I only ever saw leeches there once. Unsurprisingly, I got royally roasted over my ridiculous phobia. I still haven’t really got over my extreme dislike of worms, though I did manage to suppress it relatively well, that summer.

Flamingo nests are made out of mud - by the birds themselves, in the wild. In Slimbridge, they're made by humans.
Flamingo nests are made out of mud – by the birds themselves, in the wild. In Slimbridge, they’re made by humans.

My two months there flew by and I learnt more about birds in that short time than in the rest of life. So, when I went back to the UK for Christmas 2012, I simply had to go back to WWT for a visit. Especially because the annual, winter migration of the Bewick’s Swans from the Arctic Circle had begun. Every year these swans fly around 3000 km with their goslings to spend winter in the warmer climes. WWT’s reserve is one of the places in the UK where these swans feel it’s safe for them and their young families and they’ve been coming back for more than 20 years.

Bewick's Swans are smaller than mute swans and have black and yellow patterned beaks.
Bewick’s Swans are smaller than mute swans and have black and yellow patterned beaks.

The grounds have changed a lot since I volunteered there, nine years ago. There have also been a number of new additions to the collection, like otters, cranes and waders, to name a few. Somethings, however, haven’t changed at all:

1) The Hawaiian (Nene) Geese still litter the grounds. They’re one of the rarest geese in the world, brought back from the brink of extinction by WWT. They are incredibly daft birds, bringing the terms “feather brained” and “bird witted” to a whole new level of stupidity. The reason they nearly died out is because they’re so friendly they’d waddle up to people and practically walk into their cooking pots. There are now a few hundred in Hawaii, having been repopulated by the WWT, and the rest are at Slimbridge, free to roam at will and go up to visitors without fear of being eaten. They’re still as silly as ever, but they’re also really rather sweet and as much as I might roll my eyes as their friendliness, it’s quite endearing.

The Nene Goose: the rares and friendliest of geese.
The Nene Goose: the rarest and friendliest of geese.

2) The swans still haven’t learnt any manners. As part of my duties as a volunteer, I used to take a barrel full of grain and other bird food, once a day to feed the birds in the grounds.  The first stop was the big Swan Pen where the swans would swarm up to you and the barrel and would eat right out of it. Cheeky buggers.

Just thinking about the WWT Centre in Slimbridge still brings a smile to my face. I hope I get a chance to go back and volunteer there again at some point. I might even have mastered my worm phobia by then!

Mannerless Swans
Greedy guts

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