The majestic emissaries

On a long journey: Falcons have been geo-tagged to monitor their movements   | Photo Credit: Raghav Gupta

The journey from Jorhat airport towards Doyang was uneventful: patches of bumpy roads, the scenic hills, the dense forests, the quaint houses. That changed after crossing the hamlet of Bakhty, where a flock of a dozen or so birds abruptly flew away from a transmission wire. They were certainly not sparrows or pigeons. Starlings may be? The question answered itself after I crossed the charming little Chibu bridge. A flock of nearly 100 birds were flying overhead. And they were not just flying, they were soaring high in the sky — the signature characteristic of raptors and scavengers. Indeed these were Amur falcons: feeding on airborne insects.

Tracking big birds

Pangti village was now nearby. A detour from the irregular road to the more irregular one, took us to open grasslands. It was 4 p.m., but in Nagaland that is nearly dusk time. In the fading twilight, a gibbous moon shone. But something distracted me: a morphing cloud, like a swarm of bees. I heard myself say, “Oh my...,” not even bothering to finish. Soaring and flying all around were countless Amur falcons, rising like ash from a volcano. But far from being lifeless and silent, the falcons had all the fire in their rapid movement and their incessant calls echoed in the sky. Their meaningful, albeit noisy, conversation superseded every other sound.

I stood motionless, neck hurting partly because of my camera lens, and partly because of not having looked down since I first set eyes on them. I smiled at that little pain when I thought of the tough journey that the birds would have endured to grace these lands. Amur falcons (Falco amurensis), named after the Russian river Amur (a name which I heard for the first time after high school geography), travel from their breeding grounds in Russia, China, North Korea and Mongolia. They cover more than 5000 kms in 5-6 days without respite, until they reach Nagaland and other parts in northeast India around autumn time (October-November). Their stay here is short-lived, as they feed themselves, recovering from fatigue and hunger, only to resume their journey to their winter destination – southern Africa. There they stay in the warm weather, while it snows in northeast Asia. Finally, as winter engulfs the southern hemisphere, they bid adieu to the African continent, crossing eastern Europe, and return to their homes. They do not visit India on their way back, and return again next winter season.

I was overwhelmed with this sighting and wanted to spend some more time just gazing at their multitude. But night beckoned. Noodles were cooked over campfire, deliberations were taken up on various issues, and a deep slumber ensued in the bamboo cottage.

Come dawn, it was planned to get a closer look at the falcons. Some flocks had already started moving out for breakfast, others were contemplating to do so. We hurried to capture the moment they left trees for feeding. As we neared, I saw a tree, simply laden with falcons. Some preening, some chatting, and some looking at us surreptitiously. The falcons were extremely sensitive to the slightest of sounds, and flew away at any disturbance. That was learnt the hard way with a jacket zip, a sneeze, and a particularly noisy twig on the ground. Being extremely cautious, we were close enough to see the falcons perching on tree branches directly above us. I hid in a bush to take pictures.

Hundreds of them flew above us, alighting on the tree, and then flew again. They were now close enough that I could finally see their colour: their striking orange feet and beaks, and their adorable, inquisitive eyes. The Amur falcon was easily the prettiest raptor I had ever seen.

Heightened awareness

The majestic emissaries

I was jolted back to their tragic hunting which had been rampant just a few years ago. Thousands of them were killed every day, being trapped on trees or shot down. Their meat was widely sold. That has visibly changed. It was heartening to know about the concerted efforts of the locals, the NGOs and the state government. The falcons are now emissaries and not food any more. They are creatures to be admired, not shot down for sport. The locals have successfully translated the term “eco-tourism” to mean both economic and ecological — a requisite for sustainability.

Falcons have been geo-tagged to monitor their movements. The Amur falcon festival has become an annual event in Nagaland. These positive changes are a welcome reassurance and that was the key take-away from my visit.

Elated, I stole one last glance of the falcons, when suddenly hundreds of these majestic birds flew above me, as if waving goodbye; their fiery eyes agleam in the morning sun. They were close enough for me to hear their silken wings. Listening to their sound, I closed my eyes and silently prayed for them to return in larger numbers and relish the hospitality that this country is known for.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2021 10:47:24 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-miscellaneous/tp-others/the-majestic-emissaries/article26050309.ece

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