Skimming The Chambal
The ravines of the Chambal river are a geomorphologic wonder, but its crystal clear waters and the incredible faunal and avian diversity they support are even more fascinating. Our contributor gives us a riveting first-person account of skimming the Chambal.
The journey towards Chambal started from my hometown Kanpur in the state of Uttar Pradesh. I left in the dark, saw the sun rise on the way, and crossed two state borders: first a small stretch of Rajasthan including the town of Dholpur, and then into Madhya Pradesh via the Chambal bridge.
Even a glimpse of the famed (and infamous) ravines of Chambal easily establishes it as a geomorphologic wonder. The towering alluvial levees dotted with holes—homes of spotted owlets, swallows, ring-necked parakeets and feral rock pigeons—are a sight to behold. But what stole the show was the stunning river itself: clear as crystal, with myriad lotic flora and fish abundant and so clearly visible amid the fresh blue water: Chambal as a river was a mighty revelation.
Before the journey on the boat began, a movement caught my eye in the reeds right next to the river: it was the great thick-knee, also known as the great stone-curlew. I immediately aimed my camera at the bird, and before I could click, I saw another thick-knee come into the frame, the female, accompanied by a tiny brown cotton ball: their little fledgling! I smiled in wonder, and took a family portrait, marveling at their beauty.
The Great Thick-Knee
I then turned towards the boat, to find a lapwing flying into the distance. My first guess was red-wattled lapwing. But one look through the camera and I saw an unmistakable black head with a tuft of hair: it was the endangered river lapwing! This beauty is vanishing quickly from the riverbanks of India.
The endangered river lapwing
Finally, I clicked a picture of the white-browed wagtail, the largest of the wagtails in India, named after the constant wagging movement of the tail. It came close to me and burst into a loud song, almost commanding me to go ahead with my journey on the river.
The white-browed wagtail
So we set off in a small motorboat of the forest department towards what I longed to see. En route, I saw crocodiles, basking in the sun or floating like logs in the river. I saw turtles resting on the bridge’s cement base. In the distance, I saw a painted stork, and brahminy ducks (ruddy shelducks), sleeping with their bills tucked into their feathers. Then a tern flew by very close to us. And then another. Thankfully this time I could get a picture of it: I was shocked to find that it was the black-bellied tern: a critically endangered bird that is globally threatened. It is distinguished by a dark, sooty belly.
I took some time to recover from the wonderment of seeing such a rare bird, Finally, after traveling a good distance into the river and having caught splashes of cool water on my face and shirt, I saw a sand bar jutting into the river. The only word which came into my head was “orange.” There they were, hopping, skipping, and surely, skimming: the Indian skimmers! I scrambled out of excitement, causing the boat to bob precariously. But I didn’t care: I was lost in them.
I took several pictures of the skimmers—so named because they “skim” the surface of the river to catch fish and other marine creatures with their longer, lower bill. They then move their head upwards to grip their prey using their shorter, upper bill. Earlier literature, and some references even today, name this bird the “scissorbill” for this very reason. They are quite unmistakable owing to their bright orange and asymmetrical bills.
The population of Indian skimmers is declining rapidly, and Chambal riverbanks seem to be their last stronghold and breeding grounds. Even this is under constant threat because of sand-mining activities and constant human disturbance. My train of thought was interrupted when I glanced upon long plank-like objects—but with scales and snouts! It was the Gangetic or Indian gharial: arguably the most unique crocodilian in the world, also endangered. Once plentiful in all of the northern rivers of India, its population rapidly declined. However, thanks to successful breeding centers and constant conservation efforts, their numbers have been increasing. The gharials are named after “ghada”—the Indian pot—whose shape the adults’ snouts are.
It was so heartening to see nearly a dozen skimmers and five gharials peacefully co-existing on that small piece of land: hanging on to it as if that was their last and only refuge. As always happens when I think about the plight of such creatures, my heart sank. The boat began to turn towards the shore. I looked at them one last time, hopeful that they would continue to call this place their home.
Eurasian spoonbill, Indian skimmers, and gharials