Amur Falcons Alight at Umru

By Kynsai Ria C Kharkongor,

Class 11, Army Public School, Shillong

The Amur Falcons are birds of prey, about 28-31cm and weigh around 100 grams.  Every year, huge flocks of them fly south, from North China, Siberia and Russia (where they breed) to southern Africa for the winter. During their migration, they stop to rest and feed in parts of northeast India. A flock visits Umru village in Ri Bhoi annually.Umru is57 kms from Shillong. Atwo- and half-hour drive and then a twenty-minute walk to cross a river, brings us to the village.

The Amur Falcons first arrived in Umru in 2011, and have visited every year since. 2020 marks a decade of their visit. They usually arrive in small flocks between late September and early October.  From the time that the first birds arrive, the flock grows larger each day as more flocks join the gang. According to locals, the first flock arrived on the 29th of September this year.

At around five o’clock, the birds begin to arrive around the open fields. As the skies darken thousands of birds gather, encircling the fields with loud screeching. Slowly, they settle down in the surrounding trees. By six thirty, the skies are dark with the birds roosting for the night, the screeching subsides. Then, the stars replace the birds. The villages’ electricity is limited to a few solar panels, there are only a few lights, allowing the stars to shine brighter. The skies are pitch dark and marked with thousands of stars and the magnificent Milky Way.

There are no hotels or homestays in Umru. So, the headman, Bah Linus Khriang generously invited us, my mother,our driver and I, to stay in his home. He told us more about the falcons at Umru. They were hunted for meat, up until 2015.The birds were fried, but considered as not very tasty according to some locals.Now, a protection committee exists. Members of the committee sit in the fields at night to protect them from hunters.

The next morning at six, we walked back to the field. Through the mist we saw them perched on the bamboo surrounding the field. The mist began to clear and the sun shone brighter. Gradually, the bird calls became louder as more began leaving their perches. Soon the sky was filled with them again. Thousands more sat in the trees, sunning themselves. It was a spectacle like no other. We watched in awe as more flocks took off for the day. By seven fifteen, most of them had flown away and would return in flocks, to gather over the fields again in the evening. After witnessing their morning routine, we left, our hearts content, in awe and waiting to tell everyone(once our phones found a signal) all about the extravaganza put on by the Amur Falcons.

In a few weeks they will all leave, like they arrived, gradually, in small flocks. The last flock of 10-15 birds will leave in the first week of December. They would have doubled their weight by feeding on insects including bees, flying ants and termites, in preparation for the final leg of their journey. They fly an estimated 4000 kilometres to Africa to escape the cold weather. After flying for three weeks, they reach their winter capital in late December. They will return to their breeding grounds next summer (April-May) and once again, five months later.

I remain awe struck. Pictures and videos do not do this amazing event, justice. The experience was educational, exceptional and one I will never forget. Driving two and a half hours, walking for half an hour,staying in a stranger’s home in a village so remote that there is no mobile connectivity, looking up at the Milky Way and most of all, the thousands of Amur Falcons, is all worth the journey.

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