I had the good fortune to volunteer for a water-bird survey of the Tamiraparani River basin conducted by ATREE for a fortnight this August. The waters of this great river had been impounded high up in the serene hills of the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, its waters diverted along the length of its course by man-made canals to irrigation tanks. The resultant effect appeared to have lead to large congregations of water fowl. We were indeed fortunate to see a number of early migrants and were able to identify a few species that had not been recorded in this area.
Unfortunately, we came across signs of man-animal conflict at a few tanks. At one tank we noticed the distressed flapping of a grey bird on an island of reeds which was at least a good three hundred yards from the road we were on. I cannot swim to save myself leave alone a bird trapped in no-man’s land. Abhisheka and I watched helplessly as the bird struggled, suspended by fishing line by one ankle on an Ipomoea plant. Moved by our distress, our driver, Jyothiraj, gallantly volunteered to swim across the weed infested tank on a rescue mission. He plunged into the murky waters with little coaxing. With each stroke he seemed to be getting more tired and eventually, after what seemed an eternity, he reached the island, much to our relief. He cut the bird free and attempted to release the hapless creature. The bird, a Night Heron, lay splayed out helplessly on the sand-bar next to Jyothiraj. With limited choices Jyothiraj headed back across the tank propelling himself with weak backstrokes of his free hand whilst holding the bird aloft like a flag. The exertion was telling as he bravely trod water to reach the bird back to us.
We headed for the nearest town to pick up emergency medication and food for the exhausted heron. A grinning tired, and, a tad smelly, Jyothiraj deposited us and our patient at the ATREE field station. The bird made an uneventful recovery and was released in the morning. Regardless whether the heron is grateful for its second lease of life, I raise a silent toast to its savior whenever I see night herons silhouetted against the lilac and orange evening skies, squawking their way unhurriedly to their feeding sites.