One does not usually associate birding with Varanasi’s riverfront. This ancient and holy city, which is amongst the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth, is crowded, filthy, crassly commercial, oozes religiosity, garishly dressed up, loud, endlessly fascinating, photogenic, friendly, unpretentious and very often sublimely beautiful -- even spiritual. Bird life is limited to the commoners – Bank Mynas, Rock Pigeons, Black Kites, Rose-ringed Parakeets (both free and caged), Common Crows, Sparrows, an occasional Pond Heron, White-thoated Kingfishers (and sometimes it’s Pied cousin), Wagtails (a few Grey Wagtails in the winters) and an occasional Magpie Robin. The river front is over built and the entire 6 km long curve of the Ganga is choked with ghats, steps, temples, teashops and people. Successive generations of preachers and princes have all strived to leave behind a legacy and ghats are the scene of round-the-clock outpouring of humanity and its rituals. The entire spectrum of life’s chores, from deep meditation to sewage disposal, are carried out with the same fervour.
However, in winter this city is host to a beautiful migrant – the Brown-headed Gull (Larus brunnicephalus). On chilly and calm mornings, as the fog reluctantly rises above the languid river and the boats disgorge the lighted diyas on the frigid waters, one can notice skeins of dim white birds doing low passes on the river’s surface. Soon enough, as the day warms and visibility improves the cries of “aaaao – aaaao” are heard from the ghat steps and the boats. The gulls recognize it, in fact are waiting for it. They mob the source of the sound - boats in midriver, bathers on the banks and regular bird feeders – all are distributing food and a feeding orgy ensues. Residents love the birds for they break the monotony of the riverscape which has few waterbirds if any at all. The tourists are pleasantly surprised at this unexpected bounty from nature in a city where their purpose is mostly religious. Those who feed birds regularly at dawn and dusk relish this novel punya and for once the pigeons, monkeys and the sparrows take a backseat. The food offered to the birds is mostly fried savouries (namkeen), which are by no means suitable but the gulls seem to relish and fall over each other to get to the salty morsels. They are fed all through the day, every boat with tourists wants to experience this thrill and the fish and the turtles (introduced to help clean this stretch of Ganga, which carries a more than normal share of bio-waste) are the lucky beneficiaries of this largesse. The demand for gull feed has led to a seasonal occupation – a few boats in the river are there for the sole purpose of selling “bird namkeen” to the boaters and the enterprising boatmen advertise their wares by calling out “aaaao – aaaao”, getting the birds to fly in but hold back the food. The Brown-headed Gull breeds in the marshes and bogs of the Central Asian plateau and high-altitude lakes of Ladakh in India (among them Pangong Tso). It nests on the ground (usually a mound of grass on marshy terrain) in large colonies and is a gregarious species. It is migratory, wintering on the coasts, tidal creeks and large inland lakes of tropical southern Asia. In India it is found along the coasts, large lakes and river systems of northern India. I have seen it on the Ganga-Yamuna river system at several locations including the confluence (Sangam) at Allahabad. While wintering they often flock with other gulls and terns and we have seen them in large flocks with Caspian (Hydroprogne caspia, formerly Sterna caspia) , Greater Crested (Sterna bergii) and Lesser Crested terns (Sterna bengalensis), on a coastal sand bar near Marakkanam in Tamil Nadu (November 2010). It is a bold and opportunistic feeder. It scavenges and also eats small invertebrates and winged quarry. The dark brown hood is seen only in breeding plumage. In winter plumage, the head is white with a prominent dark spot behind the eye. The bill is dark red with a black tip. The legs are red and the eyes are white. It has a grey upper wing and broad white primary base, creating white half-moon against black wing-tip with prominent white mirrors (a diagnostic help). The tail is white and quite prominent in flight.
The residents love the birds and it is with a sense of pride that they tell the Indian tourists about this “safed kaowa” from Siberia (literally white crows) which is a regular visitor to the holy city. Bizarre as it may seem, this appellation is not such a farfetched one – for the gulls are numerous, mob the feeders like crows do, and for once they outnumber the crows ten to one. This is the only urban landscape where there are fewer crows than gulls or for that matter any other species of birds (mynas included). Text and photographs by Sahastrarashmi