Feathered denizens of the Capital’s Raisina Hill

August 12, 2014 09:31 am | Updated 09:31 am IST - New Delhi

Shikra. Photo: Thomas Mathew

Shikra. Photo: Thomas Mathew

The house on Raisina Hill, better known as Rashtrapati Bhavan, is also home to over a hundred species of birds. Amidst the thick foliage and shielded from prying eyes these birds were a well-kept secret, even from those who lived within the peripheries of the expansive Presidential Estate, until now, when these winged residents have been caught on camera.

Rohit Kumar, who has lived on the Estate for the past 25 years, recalls seeing the “usual” kinds — the pigeons and the mynas — and the only “exotic” species he could identify were the shrilly parakeets and peacocks in their resplendent colours.

Sometime last year he was shown pictures of “unusual” birds and what stumped him was that they had been living in his neighbourhood all this while.

“I didn’t even know all these birds can be found here,” he says sheepishly. Of course, now he is a bird spotter and runs to alert his “boss” each time he sees a new visitor.

The “boss”, Dr. Thomas Mathew, is the Additional Secretary to President Pranab Mukherjee, who has spent countless hours crouching behind shrubs, sitting in the sun, patiently waiting for his subjects to make an appearance and then oblige him with a pose. He too works on the orders of his “boss”, the President, to capture and collate information about the birds that find a habitat in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

“The President is a nature lover; while observing the birds here one day, he said we should put together information on the birds that are found around us. And that was my brief,” says Dr. Mathew, who credits Secretary to the President Omita Paul for providing the necessary encouragement to keep going.

“I was, after all, doing all this in addition to my official duties and Ms. Paul was clear that the book had to be ready in 12 months,” he says.

The brief has been fulfilled and the President was recently presented a copy of the 339-page ‘Winged Wonders of Rashtrapati Bhavan’, a compilation of breathtaking pictures and accompanying anecdotes about 111 species that roost within the expanse of the Presidential Estate. With each picture, the author has not only included information on the birds but cited the exact time and location of where it was shot.

For several months, aided by a battalion of gardeners and office staff, Dr. Mathew combed the entire 330 acres of the Estate, scouting for birds among the many parks, gardens and thicket.

“Delhi is the world’s second-most bird-rich Capital after Nairobi,” he says, and proceeds to regale with stories of how he captured a hitherto unseen courting dance of the koels and how a bee mistook the colourful crest of the flameback for a flower and tried to perch on it — all these stories have been told visually in the book through meticulously shot frames.

The bird spotting exercise has also given the President’s Office cues on how to turn the Estate into an ideal habitat for attracting more species.

“A lone bluethroat made a rare appearance in 2002 in the Estate; this year we spotted several of them,” points out Dr. Mathew, adding that work has begun on how to offer the birds a better, friendlier habitat within the Estate.

“We want to make sure this place remains an oasis for the birds. In the past two years more than a thousand fruit bearing trees have been planted, we are thinking of creating an ecosystem where the birds can catch fish. The Secretary has already given instructions on how to revive the water bodies near the Dalikhana as the President is keen that this Estate remains a haven for birds, beyond human encroachment,” says Dr. Mathew, readying his camera for the next click.

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