Stray Feathers I: p361-367
Notes on the birds of the Sambhur Lake & its vicinity, By R.M. Adam

Historical foreword by Adam, R.M. (1873)

As the study of local avifaunas is of considerable importance to ornithologists, I purpose to record the birds which I have obtained, or observed, during my residence at Sambhur, extending over a period of three years.

My very limited knowledge of ornithology prevents me from attempting to add any information of importance to that science: all that I attempt is to note the birds which I have seen or obtained here, and in a few cases to record something as to their habits and nidification.

Altogether I have noted the occurrence of 244 species; the number belonging to each order being as follows:
Raptores 26
Fissirostres 15
Scansores 13
Tenuirostres 4
Dentirostres 69
Conirostres 28
Gemitores ... 8
Rasores ... 8
Grallatores ... 51
Natatores ... 22

Until quite recently, little was known, and much less recorded, concerning this famous salt source. To illustrate this statement, I may mention that a member of Dr. Fawcett's committee, who lately made a hurried visit to the lake, remarked at dinner: "Well, it is strange how thing's will happen. About six weeks ago I was examining an old Indian, of some forty years' service, and amongst other questions I asked if a large salt lake did not exist somewhere in Central India, and he replied, 'very possibly there may be such a lake, but I have never heard of it,' "and now," said the M. P.," here I am drinking simkin on its edge."

The Sambhur Lake is situated in N. lat. 26° 58' and E. long. 75° 5'. All around, but principally to the west, are low-lying hills, which form a part of the Aravalli range, which runs in a north-westerly direction through Rajputana. To the north-west is a sandy tract called the Great Desert, with Sinde on its western, and the Punjab on its northern and western boundary. Taking the village of Dodo, 42 miles from Jeypur, in the direction of Ajmere, the lake is 16 miles distant in a nearly northern direction. The surrounding country is arid and sterile to a degree.

Approaching Sambhur from the south, the country is sparsely cultivated, owing to the scarcity of water, while close to Sambhur there are a series of sand dunes covered with a stunted vegetation, and beyond, close to the lake edge and parallel to the town, is a fine belt of trees, with, here and there a mass of green foliage belonging to a tope, or garden, or one of the numerous wells.

The soil in this neighbourhood is exceedingly fertile, and when favorable rainfalls occur, or when water can be had for irrigation, splendid crops are obtained; but an adequate supply of water is rarely obtained, the average rainfall here being about 12 inches, while further west) in Marwar, or the region of death, little or no rain ever falls, and water for irrigation is sometimes only obtained at a depth of over 800 feet from the surface.

The open wells in use about Sambhur for irrigation are excavations made in the fields about 30 or 40 feet in diameter and 20 feet deep. The sides of these are densely clothed with a species of willow, tiger and sarpat grass, &c., and are the favorite haunts of numerous birds.

In the hot season, as a rule, the lake contains no water, but presents a mass of dazzling roseate white efllorescence caused by the crystallization of the salt; here and there this monotony is relieved by patches of brine in course of evaporation. Leaving out the icebergs, and adding the fact of the thermometer being well over 130' in the sun's rays, and a fairly respectable hot west wind blowing, its appearance always reminds me of the pictures in Dr. Hay's "Open Polar Seas."

In the rains all this is changed, and the scene of utter desolation is transformed into one of great beauty. The clear atmosphere lights up and tints with purple and violet the distant low-lying ranges of hills, the sandy wastes are covered with verdure, and the lake-bed is converted into a wide expanse of water 20 miles in length by about 5 in breadth. To enhance all this, there are the tiny-crested waves rippling along, and the whole surface teeming with bird-life.

Dense masses of flamingoes are to be seen everywhere swimming or wading in the lake-bed, flying overhead, bearing "the rich hues of all glorious things," or stalking sedately along the edge in search of food. This latter process is a wonderful sight. Long lines of big and little birds, of all shades of plumage, from the gorgeous rose-colored adult to the dingy brown-and-white young, march along, and invariably here from west to east, all wagging their down-bent heads in search of the animal-cules with which the brackish water abounds. If "Alice in Wonderland" after her game of croquet with the flamingo for a mallet could have seen such a sight, she would have been sorely puzzled to account for the gigantic game which was apparently going on amongst the mallets on their own account.

A peculiar form of animalcule, about half an inch in length, is the only form of animal life which has yet been observed in the lake. These die off as the brine approaches saturation, and their dying off was formerly looked for by the practical salt-makers as a sign that salt would soon form. Before dying off, they deposit immense layers of eggs, in some places over an inch in thickness, and these are hatched at the commencement of the annual rains.

The length of time during which birds frequent the lake much depends on the depth of water and the heat required for its evaporation. "When the animalcules disappear, many of the swimmers and waders go off or frequent, for a time, the fresh or brackish ponds in the neighbourhood; still many flamingoes remain, but what they manage to subsist on up till March or the middle of April-when the lake contains only a concentrated solution of brine, or masses of salt - I am quite unable to say.

Immediately after such rainfalls as I have above referred to, the specific gravity of the lake-brine is slightly less or just equal to that of sea-water, viz., 1.03, and this goes on increasing in density. until it reaches the specific gravity of a saturated solution of salt, viz., 1.2046, about the end of February.

When the brine has reached a specific gravity of 1·08, a portion of it is cut off from the main body by low walls of mud and grass, and from these enclosures our salt supply is obtained. About the middle of March the salt extraction commences and continues until the rains set in. The salt forms, in a crust over two inches thick, on the fetid lake mud, which is about a foot in depth. The laborers place their open hands between the layer of salt and the mud, and toss the salt into small heaps, and this is carried to the stores which are situated above the high-water level. There is generally a good deal of moisture in the crust, and the instant it falls from the laborers hands, each crystal becomes detached, and shows the truncated pyramidal form which is so peculiar to the Sambhur Salt.

This work has to be done in the early morning, as the salt and the mud become so hot about 8 A. M. as to be quite unbearable. A walk barefoot through one of these salt fields is somewhat novel and exciting; I have tried snow shoes, long boots, and long stockings, but have found none of them equal to the bare skin. When you have taken the first few steps in the soft warm mud, the feeling is pleasant, but when you come to place your feet on the sharp-pointed crystals and feel them pricking and scratching as you go down in some very soft place over the knees, and experience the sensation of withdrawing each leg carefully, the crystals scratching even worse with the upward pull, and the brine causing the fresh cuts to smart all the while, you cannot avoid thinking that a mile of it would be a very fair penance even for an extraordinary sin. Any pilgrim with unboiled peas in his shoes might handicap you to any extent and win without an effort. The cutting of the crystals and the continued irritation of the brine produce ulcers on the legs of the laborers, which, if not properly attended to, often lay them up for months.

The average out-turn of salt from the Lake at Sambhur and Nawa Goodha is about 1,400,000 maunds, or 51,429 tons. At Sambhur alone the average out-turn for the last 17 years was 690,000 maunds. The greatest out-turn during the above period, viz., 1,360,000 maunds, was in 1869, and was due to the scant rainfall of 1868 and the abundant supply of labor which the famine forced to the works; while in 1863 the least out-turn, viz., 1,504 maunds, was due to the excessive rainfall of the previous year, which raised the lake so high that it even flooded some of the lower parts of the town.

The supply of salt seems inexhaustible, and in a favorable season, with sufficient labor to construct the necessary works and collect the salt, double, or treble the quantity we now obtain could be collected.

The salt is of three colors, viz., blue, white, and red. The blue color is due to the lake silt being enclosed within the crystals or covering them, while the red color is due to some form of microscopic animal or vegetable matter, which is abundantly propagated when the sun's rays are most intense. As people do not care for this red salt, it is seldom collected. New salt is greatly in demand, and the uniform size of the crystals, as well as the shade of blue or white which they possess, regulate the selling price. The price varies from 8 annas to Re. 1.1 per maund, but the average price obtained is about 10.75 annas per maund.

The carriage required for exporting the year's sales amounted to 300,000 bullocks, 66,000 camels, 18,000 carts, and 5,000 asses.

So far as I am aware, no practical geologist has as yet examined the lake, but the general belief is that the salt has been washed from the surrounding Permian rocks and carried by the extensive surface drainage into the lake.

As regards the physical features of the surrounding neighbourhood, little requires to he said. Cultivation is everywhere sparse, and the extensive sand plains contain few trees, but here and there they are covered with low scrub jungle. The trees generally met with are Acacia arabica, A. leucocephae, A. speciosa, Azardirachta indica, Tamarix orientalis, Cordia myxa and Hamillonia suaoveolens, while close to villages, which are few and far between, a few Ficus religosa and indica with some straggling specimens of Phaenix sylvestris occur. On the sand dunes a small species of acacia, A Jacquemonti, is very common, and on the plains the following are a few of the commonest plants, viz., Saccharum sara Calotropis Hamiltoni and gigantia, Athagi maurorum, Capparis spinosa, Calligonum polizonoides, Crotolaria burhia, Ziziphus numularia, and Edwardsia mollis. Everywhere the jerboa-rat, Gerbillus indicus, (G. Erythrorus, ED., Stray Feathers. ) is so abundant that the Rajputs call it the Zamin-ka-raja, or king of the soil. Ponds or jheels are of very rare occurrence, and these are generally dried up completely by the end of April or middle of May. Some of the low hill ranges are all but destitute of vegetation, whilst others are densely covered with Euphorbia Royleana, Cactus indicus, Lagerstremia, parvi-flora (dhan), and a small tree with re-curved thorns called khiri, which considerably impedes rapid progress. In this cover the Indian wild boar is very common, while small herds of the Sambhur (Rusa Aristotelis) and the Nilghau (Portax pictus) are sparingly met with. Wolves, hyenas, and very rarely a tiger or leopard are found, but as these are all enemies to cattle, they are soon shot or trapped by the thakoors.

On the eastern side of some of these hills are vast deposits of sand thrown over by the prevailing west winds, but these are all but destitute of vegetation, as the surface soil is scattered about by every storm, In one of those hill ranges, about thirty miles west from Sambhur, are situated the marble quarries of Mokrana, which supplied most of the white marble for the Taj and other buildings in Agra. The quarries are very extensive, and are still worked to supply the demand in Agra. There is also a brisk local trade in the manufacture of Hindu gods, and dishes of Indian pattern, and it is very interesting to see whole families, with children seven or eight years of age, turning out vessels of the most elegant designs with the rudest tools. The walls of the houses are chiefly built of marble chips, and the town presents a weird appearance when seen from a distance, but the most curious thing which I observed during my visit was a group of boys winnowing the sandy soil to obtain pure grains of silica for polishing the marble, and the result of a day's work for each was only about six pounds in weight.

I now append a list of the birds which I have observed at the lake and in its neighbourhood.

The accompanying sketch map shows the outline of the lake and the position of the places referred to.

The numbers* given are those used in Dr. Jerdon's Birds of India and Mr. Hume's Catalogue.
digitised and edited for relevence- ED
3 January 2009
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