The Purple Winged

Their feathers ruffle in the still air, creating ripples invisible but perceptible, for it shuffles the wings of the others, and the stale, damp air that had settled by the seafront slowly stirs to life, dancing merrily over the weightless feathers streaked in crimson, becoming visible only because it intermingles with them. Like flames in the pale morning light they slowly flicker, with one stretching and flapping its wings and the other shaking its little tail feathers; one by one each they stir.

The land they stand upon is flooded by water. Their tall, slender legs, half submerged, helps them stand still on the soft bed, and they raise their heads on a gracefully curved neck, greeting one another with affection.

They are the purple-winged-phoenix-of-the-waters, with, not to mention – flaming eyes – the (Lesser) Flamingos. Not for nothing were they were named Phoenicopterus (now Phoeniconaias). And not for nothing were they called minor, for they are the smallest of all flamingo species, of which there are only six.
A Flaming Morning
They are birds of mystery. Their past is cloaked with diverse theories regarding their evolution, and their relation to other birds. They’re sometimes placed in the Order Ciconiiformes (including ibises, herons and many more), while some prefer them to be in their own – the Phoenicopteriformis. This, and their feeding habits, which won’t be wrong to be compared to that of the Baleen Whales, should make us glad to share our living space with this unique bird.

India is home – a wintering ground as well as a permanent abode – to two species – The Greater (P. roseus), and the Lesser (P. minor). While the former has a rather restricted range, and seldom, if not never, visit so far south as Mumbai, the Lesser are widespread over their range in India. And the vast mudflats of Mumbai’s prized coastlines are one of their unlikely choices of feeding and resting.

In a place hidden by iron-cast buildings and towering smokestacks, and a multitude of trucks, there opens into a clearing a least expected sight: The rising sun is blinding on the horizon. Its beams hide the tall minarets of the oil refinery and the blackness of the waters, and bathed in its pure golden light lie the mudflats of Sewri Bay.

The bay is an anchoring harbour for live and expired container ships and abandoned fishing vessels, strewn with wreckages of ships of old, of rubber tires, of glass, and of all one can imagine that is manufactured my man, including municipal and industrial sewage that empties at its mouth.
Through Ruins
Yet amongst its bleakness, the seemingly toxic environment, there are scores of plant and animal life that prospers in the riches unseen to the naked eye. If it were not for this amazing biodiversity, this ecosystem would have been long buried and fallen prey for the prosperity that came from development – at what cost, no one bothers to know.

The mudflats of Sewri, Mahul, Airoli, and Uran that has already fallen prey, are but a few vast intertidal regions of Mumbai visited by Flamingos. When and how did the pioneering explorers of Flamingos arrive not no one knows, but it has been well established that only a fraction of the settled colonies of Rann of Kutch visit Mumbai. It was in the 90s that the flocks began homing-in in Mumbai in their thousands.

What makes the mudflats of Sewri so special is perhaps of least interest to man, but the early Flamingo pioneers sought it and found it – a treasure house of Diatoms and Cyanobacteria – microalgae such as Spirulina that grow in saline waters, which form a major part of their diet.
Underwater feeding
With their heads often submerged in shallow waters for several seconds, they would filter out these blue-green algae using a specialized beak that works as good as that of a baleen whale’s enormous filter-feeding mouth. These beaks contain comb-like structures called lamellae for filtering out their microscopic food from mud – a modification unique only to a handful of vertebrates.

The Lesser contain finer filters than that of the Greater, making it a highly-specialized bird for feeding on finer foodstuffs. However, unlike the ill-fated trend of specialized animals, the Lesser Flamingos are one of the most numerous and widespread flamingos, described in the International Single Species Action Plan for the Conservation of the Lesser Flamingo as “a species adapted to respond to changes in local environmental conditions by moving among wetlands, and thus depends on a network of suitable sites”.

It is perhaps for this reason that they chose the mudflats of Sewri. But it is not only an abode for the Flamingos which found their treasure here; it is a haven for a number of waders which also flock to this mudflat from distant lands. In huge numbers.
Mudflats of Sewri
Naturalists and birdwatchers have been documenting Sewri’s biodiversity for many years. Its vast, fertile stretches, dotted by mangroves, are a teeming hotspot for intertidal marine life, from Fiddler Crabs to Mudskippers, both in plentiful numbers amongst other unseen and unheard-of sea-creatures. But the marine flora and fauna largely remains unstudied in this region, and therefore ascertaining its value in terms of the ecological services it provides – of mangroves protecting the shoreline, of the bacteria that act upon the municipal wastes, and how all of these activities ultimately keep the ecosystem in balance, is unknown.
Western Reef Egret amidst Lesser Flamingos
A determined Reef Egret stalks the water carefully amidst the feeding Flamingos. She carefully wades amongst them, focusing on the little fishes and shrimps that may stir amongst so many feet and expose their presence. Common Sandpipers, Curlews, Black-winged Stilts, Bar-tailed Godwits, and many more feed in these waters. And all these birds, the apex predators of this ecosystem – target an array of lifeforms, from those microscopic (like blue-green algae, the specialty of the Lesser Flamingos) and the large crabs and fishes (the specialty of egrets, herons and terns).
The Harmony
But this harmony may not last for long. It is shrouded by a looming danger of being overtaken by development. Several projects have been assessed to understand their impacts on this wetland ecosystem, and several recommendations have been proposed, which have further given rise to a conflict of interest. Everyone is roping in for the development, but not everyone want to do it at the cost of destruction. Today, its future hangs by a thread.
Flamingos and a dog
Activities such as hunting of flamingos for meat and eggs, electrocution due to overhead wires, a constant threat from domestic dogs and, ultimately, the destruction of their habitats through toxic pollution and land reclamation, has put the lives of Lesser Flamingoes in danger. They are a Near Threatened species, likely to qualify for a Threatened category in the near future.

One may argue that the flamingoes will seek other fertile feeding grounds once Sewri goes the way of Uran, but if that’s the way to come, Mumbai is going to lose one of its very few remaining flagship species, and soon turn into a vacant niche open to unforeseen consequences.
Tle Last Flamingos of Mumbai?
More reading:

International Single Species Action Plan for the Conservation of the Lesser Flamingo: 2007, 2008
Penelope M. Jenkin (1956). Filter feeding and food of Flamingos

3 comments:

  1. Hi,

    Nice article, greatly explained. I would like to photograph these wonderful species, would you suggest a proper time for photographing them, mornings or evenings, when are they seen?

    Also let me know of any precautions I should take.

    Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your kind words Vipin. The proper time depends on the high tide. You must check when is the peak, since that's the time when they are closer to the shore. Best time, of course, is early morning light, however I've been told that evening is provides good lighting conditions to photograph them. General precautions are to photograph them from a safe distance, but they are surprisingly tolerant to humans. I'd recommend visiting the place with a small group.

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    2. Thank you very much for the detailed reply...

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