It was dark and foggy as our car sped along the desolate highway, rumbling over cold, broken asphalt before the crack of dawn. Mist clung to the lush farmlands outside, but we were too sleepy to appreciate the views of the fresh winter landscape. Of course, a stop for chai and fresh bhajji did us wonders, and our minds were soon back to the road and the day’s plan—chasing birds in a garbage dump!
I can safely say all my previous birding adventures took place in areas with a certain aesthetic charm. Part of the appeal of birding, for many, is exploring the natural habitat of the winged wonders they follow, yet now, I found myself barreling towards a dump yard to spot some of the world’s rarest. It may seem like the irony of my predicament stank as much as my destination, but in truth, I was following the footsteps of most serious ornithologists. The eminent American ornithologist, Ken Kaufman, perhaps, explains this phenomenon the best.
“The uninitiated are surprised to learn that dumps are very birdy. It makes sense, though. The combined table scraps of an entire city add up to a feast for the omnivores, and in warm weather the dumps attract clouds of insects, which other birds eat,” he wrote, as he stopped over at the Brownsville Dump in Texas to spot the Mexican Crow. Unlike Ken—who hitchhiked through the US for an entire year bird spotting (the big year!)—I was on a short trip to the Bikaner carcass dump to try my luck at spotting the cinereous vulture.
The Jorbeer Conservation Reserve, near the Rajasthani city of Bikaner, is a stopover for most bird watchers and nature enthusiasts visiting this part of the country. Formed as a dumping ground for cattle carcasses, the area rose to fame due to the number and diversity of vultures. With seven species of vultures—Himalayan, Eurasian, cinereous, Egyptian, long-billed, white-rumped and red-headed—this is perhaps one of the world’s greatest sites to spot vultures in the thousands! It also features plenty of other raptors, like, the steppe eagle, imperial eagle, tawny eagle, who congregate at Jorbeer in equal numbers.
The highway cutting through endless stretches of cultivated fields and grasslands was empty as we made our way towards the reserve. Anand Prasad, our driver and guide, knew this place like the back of his hand. As he drove, he talked excitedly of the three to four cinereous vultures he had seen a couple of days ago, when he had brought another client from Delhi. Very soon, he diverted off the road, driving up to a gate of the reserve. A sleepy guard came running, and after a quick entry formality, we were inside.
Though we were passing through a realm of rotten waste, we had arrived at a veritable birders paradise. Each and every tree, every pile of rock, was littered with treasure. There were steppe eagles, Himalayan and Eurasian griffons on the treetops; Egyptian griffons stood on the ground, pecking at scattered pieces of bone, while imperial eagles and ravens looked on from branches.
The smell of the dump yard was amplified by its sound: a constant warbling buzz. Insects hovered over the grim expanse as dogs, vultures and eagles scavenged for flesh, they too falling prey to the circle of life as drongos deftly dived into their dark clouds for nourishment. Anand ji advised we moved on to another viewing point, so we made our way to a dusty track along the border of the reserve. Carefully we examined the silhouettes of vultures propped against the bleak rising sun, and after some time, we saw a bird distinct from all the others. The large, dark brown body, with a very noticeable pale pink base to the bill, spread its wing wide as if to show off. Look closely, and you will also notice a blackish mask, contrasting with its brown plumage.
The cinereous vulture sat on the ground, in all its regality. We drove closer to it, making sure to not invade its comfort zone. As the sun crept out through the last of the overhanging mist, we saw the bird in greater detail. To think it makes a journey across several countries and climates to arrive and winter at this dumpyard is indeed overwhelming. Not so long ago, the very place the vultures currently feed—and many more dump yards across India—poisoned these great scavengers, before the antibiotic diclofenac was banned. Now it is a safe haven for a plethora of vultures and other birds, who have found treasure in a pile of trash.
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.