Srinagar: With a rise in mercury, flocks of pochards, mallards, shovellers and other winged visitors are gearing up to bid adieu to the famous Hokarsar bird reserve here and head back to their summer homes in Siberia, China and Japan.
Thousands of them had made Jammu and Kashmir their home in the harsh winter.
"The eldest of the flock leads the journey back as scores of others line up behind the leader to fly thousands of miles back to their summer homes," Pir Mushtaq, range officer at this bird reserve, said.
"Different species of birds fly separately and usually they prefer clear night skies to begin the journey. It is a marvel of navigation that baffles even the best flight engineers of the world," he says.
He tells how these birds, wigeons, greylag geese, teals, brahmany ducks, coots, gadwalls and pintails eat vigorously to add to their bodyweight and fat before migrating to summer homes in East Europe, Japan Siberia, China and Japan and the Philippines.
"The distance is long and the journeys are tough...so much so that a greylag goose, that weighs around seven pounds at the start of migration, weighs just three pounds at the end of it," Mushtaq says.
He has been studying bird behaviour inside the reserve for over three years now.
"I have a strong emotional attachment with them and this perhaps is the reason why I took very few vacations during the winter months when this wetland was thronged by thousands of migratory birds," he says.
Spread over 13.75 sq km, the reserve is well guarded by boundaries. And if that is not sufficient, there is security guard Gulam Hassan Dar to keep poachers at bay.
"Poachers sometimes use horse hair loops to trap unsuspecting birds and I keep vigil to ensure nobody lays a trap," says Dar, who has been guarding the bird reserve for 20 years.
"The reserve needs a lot of care, especially during the winter freeze when the birds are unable to find their choice of food of Trapa nuts, which grows in the reserve waters.
"We had to arrange a lot of paddy for the birds this winter as the water bodies froze for many days because of sub-zero temperatures," he adds.
As he rows a boat showing bird watchers around, flocks of teals, mallards and brahmany ducks fly past the boat.
"Don`t worry. They will fly round the reserve and then settle down again," he says while looking at them fondly. "They huddle together during the extreme cold and their body temperatures prevent small pools of water around from getting frozen," he says.
"In the evenings, the greylag geese and other species leave the reserve and fly to Wullar Lake and other larger water bodies for feeding. They invariably come back in the mornings," he adds.
Located just 10 km away from city centre Lal Chowk, privacy is a far cry for these warbling guests.
Residential houses have come up all around the bird reserve. Discharge of effluents from human settlements is polluting the water inside the reserve.
"Despite this, we are doing our best to preserve the environment inside the reserve," says the range officer in charge of the reserve. "No shooting is allowed in and around the reserve as wildlife laws of the state forbid shooting of any sort, except with a camera!" says the officer.
"We are developing infrastructure at the reserve to make it a tourist destination under eco-tourism. This is done through desilting, de-weeding and regulation of optimum water levels inside the reserve," he adds.
He also talks about a recent phenomenon wherein mallards -- finding the environs congenial for breeding -- are spending their summer here, ignoring nature`s call for reverse migration.
As the range officer tells the story, a flock of cackling geese settles at a distance.
"It is time to leave the birds alone. We should not tire them for long. They have to undertake their long journey back to their summer homes in the coming days," the officer says while directing the guard to row back the boat to shore.