Seen from afar, Basai resembles nothing more than a wasteland, stuck between high-rises on all sides. But this wetland is in fact of one Delhi’s best birding locales, with many species visible in a small area.
About 50 kilometres/1.5 hours from central Delhi, Basai is accessed by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turn, right up to what looks like an undemarcated marsh filled with dirty water. A kilometre-long dirt track goes through the swamp, which is filled with water hyacinths and tall typha reeds. A canal runs along its far end. Mexican mesquite trees and clumps of grass grow on the solid land between the waterbodies.
On my most recent visit, I arrived early in the morning with ten fellow birders. Heavy fog covered most of the area, and a weak-looking sun hung in the eastern sky. As we drove into the wetland, we saw hordes of waders foraging in the water for their breakfast. We parked halfway up the track, continuing along the length of the road on foot. Purple swamphens announced their presence with their crass call. We also saw black-winged stilts, sandpipers, stints, ibises; and pintail, teal, and gadwall ducks.
A moustached warbler called from the reeds, and we stopped to watch it creep out to look for small insects. It vanished back into the leafy labyrinth almost as soon as it had appeared. But what held my attention longest was a flock of 17 greater flamingoes. We could see only the silhouettes of these beautiful birds through the haze, but were mesmerised by their serpentine necks and long legs. They seemed to walk on tiptoe, preening, and occasionally dipping their beaks in the water to feed.
As we sipped some tea we had brought, there was a commotion on the water. A flock of waders flew haphazardly in front of us. The reason for their distress soon became apparent: a peregrine falcon was on the hunt! This small raptor can reach a speed of up to 320 kmph while diving, which makes it the fastest animal in the world (three times faster than a cheetah, which is the fastest land animal). Using this speed as a weapon, the peregrine falcon can hunt a diverse range of prey, as many as a hundred species. This has been well documented—I still remember footage of this bird seeking its food that I watched as a child.
But watching this drama unfold before my eyes was something else. Unperturbed by the frenzied manoeuvres of the wader flock, the falcon flew right behind it, breaking it up by flying straight into it. It isolated an individual bird, which plunged in terror, trying to outfly the fast predator on its tail. Like a bolt of lightning, the peregrine dived in pursuit. Its speed sent shivers down my spine. Despite this, the peregrine was unsuccessful. We watched as it made a few more attempts, but the wader lived to see another day. Finally, the falcon flew off, leaving an amazed group of birders behind.
Sutirtha Lahiri is a Master’s student at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. He is always in search of birds and birdsong, good food, a cup of tea, and a reason to ditch transport for long walks.