Saturday 28th May 2016

A visit to two deceased forefathers in the shadow of the Crimean War Memorial in Istanbul

Up till now, almost all of my posts on this website have concerned members of the Champion and Walker sides of my family, but today I had the moving experience of visiting the graves of two ancestors/relatives from my grandmother’s side. I refer to Julia (Judy) Stewart, wife of F W Champion, the tiger conservationist and photographer. Her mother, Frances Jane Hobart Hampden, wife of Major-General Sir Keith Stewart KCB DSO, was niece of an outstanding but largely, and undeservedly, forgotten character, “Augustus Charles Hobart Hampden, who was born in Leicestershire, the third son of the 6th Earl of Buckinghamshire.

In 1835 he entered the Royal Navy and served as a midshipman on the coast of Brazil in the suppression of the slave trade, displaying much gallantry in the operations. In 1855 he took part, as captain of HMS Driver, in the Baltic Expedition, and was actively engaged at Bomarsund and Åbo.

In 1862 he retired from the navy with the rank of post-captain, but his love of adventure led him, during the American Civil War, to take the command of a blockade runner. He had the good fortune to run the blockade eighteen times, conveying war material to Charleston and returning with a cargo of cotton.

In 1867 Hobart entered the Ottoman service, and was immediately nominated to the command of that fleet, with the rank of “Bahriye Livasi” (Rear-Admiral). In this capacity he performed splendid service in helping to suppress the insurrection in Crete, and was rewarded by the Sultan with the title of Pasha (1869). In 1874 Hobart, whose name had, on representations made by Greece, been removed from the British Royal Navy List, was reinstated; his restoration did not, however, last long, for on the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war he again entered Ottoman service.

On the conclusion of peace Hobart still remained in the Ottoman service, and in 1881 was appointed Mushir, or marshal, being the first Christian to hold that high office. He died at Milan on 19 June 1886″ (Wikipedia), but his body was returned to Constantinople (Istanbul today), and he now lies in the Haydar Pasha British cemetery. The following link leads to a much more detailed description of this extraordinary man’s colourful, swashbuckling life:

Hobart Pasha

The other grave I hoped to find was that of another enterprising ancestor of my grandmother’s, Lt-Col Patrick Stewart CB, who among many other feats was Director-General of the Indo-European Telegraph, the first cable connection between Great Britain and India, but who died at the age of 32. One of the first messages sent down the newly completed line was that announcing his early death, and he now lies within fifty yards of the splendid Crimean War Memorial, erected by Queen Victoria in 1857, which also hosts the commemorative plaque to Florence Nightingale, who saved so many lives and tended so many wounded in her makeshift hospital in the nearby Selimiye Barracks.

Patrick Stewart

With such forefathers to visit, I set off by ferry across the Bosphorus, and passed by the gutted wreckage of the neoclassical Haydarpaşa Station building, a gift to the Sultan from Kaiser Wilhelm II, which was built between 1906 and 1908. Its foundation is 1100 wooden piles, each 21 metres (69 feet) long, driven into the ground by steam hammer.

Haydarpaşa was an important link in the railway chain of the Kaiser’s Berlin-to-Baghdad railway scheme, part of the German Empire’s strategic Drang nach Osten (“Drive to the East”) during the later 19th century. (ref Turkey Travel Planner). The roof and top floor were burned in an accidental fire in 2010, and it is uncertain whether it will ever be restored.

The gutted shell of the former Haydarpaşa station

I then walked from the ferry port, passing by a large closed military installation, eventually finding the rather inconspicuous entrance to the Haydar Pasha British cemetery down a side street, and almost the first grave I came upon was that of Patrick Stewart, and it was indeed close to the splendid Crimean War Memorial.

A more detailed description of Patrick Stewart’s outstandingly exciting and productive life can be found by clicking on the following link:

The grave of Patrick Stewart, my great great great uncle

How poignant that this extraordinarily talented man should have died so young

Patrick Stewart’s grave is close by the splendid memorial to the Crimean War dead

The Crimean War memorial

Hobart Pasha was more difficult to locate, as he lies in a more densely ‘populated’ section of the cemetery, and it took me perhaps half an hour to find his grave, but finally I located it, and paid my respects to the second of my two forebears who lie in that tranquil oasis of peace and greenery, tended as usual beautifully by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Hobart Pasha’s grave was more difficult to locate, surrounded as it is by other similar tombstones

The plaque commemorating the centenary of the extraordinary work of Florence Nightingale, the Lady of the Lamp

The Haydar Pasha Cemetery is beautifully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission


Sunday 3rd January 2016

Bharatpur to Gurgaon, the end of the story…and a new beginning

Following our stay in the Birders’ Inn at Bharatpur and the Indian Skimmer day at the Chambal River, the final stage of Rosemary’s and my Great Indian Adventure of 2015 began. We were transported by driver Maharaj Singh to Gurgaon, a booming, chaotic new town to the west of Delhi, with enormous apartment blocks springing up everywhere, intermingled with unmade up roads and dusty vacant lots awaiting development.

Our accommodation, by contrast, was in a quiet gated community, an oasis of relative calm shut off from the maelstrom outside. I always find it strange being in such a place. On the one hand it is pleasant to be cushioned from the madding crowd outside, but if one has no vehicle, the possibilities for escape are very limited indeed. On one occasion I became a little desperate, and decided to walk out of the campus and attempt to cross the dual carriageway and visit a shopping mall on the other side. I got halfway, and then became totally trapped on the central reservation between the two streams of swirling, honking traffic. It seemed to be impossible to go forward, and impossible to return. Finally, I followed the example of two elderly pedestrians and literally launched myself into the traffic, and luckily the thundering trucks and rushing cars drove around me. It was not worth it though; the shopping mall was filled with vacant spaces and boarded up, empty lots.

After a day spent recovering from the rigours of our 3.5-month journey, the next morning saw us being driven to the nearby home of our hosts Shilpi Singh and Manish Sinha for a book reading. Although they had only started publicising this event a few days previously, there was a good turn-out, and it was again a huge privilege for me to have the opportunity to introduce a new audience to the magic of my grandfather F W Champion’s evocative writings, which clearly still have the power to enthrall even a young and urban audience. It was an honour also to reacquaint myself with Bikram Grewal, one of India’s top ornithological writers, in whose beautiful home Shaheen Bagh/Walterre near Dehradun my parents, cousin Be and I had stayed in 2006, and Rosemary and I last year.

It was a pleasure to introduce my grandfather’s writings to a new audience

One of the aspects of my grandfather’s writings that has come more and more to my attention as I do these readings is just how elegantly he always slipped in little appeals to his audience (many of whom were passionate hunters) to let the animals live and to enjoy them as living creatures, rather than as bloody carcasses or grotesquely mounted trophies.

F W Champion’s writing is still as valid today as it was in the 1920s

An example comes in an undated and apparently unpublished article of FWC’s entitled “The Jungles as a Hobby”, which in part deals with the debate that was then raging about the comparative merits of hunting with the rifle or with the camera, the hunters stating that photography was an effeminate and over-safe hobby:

So much for camera-hunting as a sport – a sport which normally is possibly a little less dangerous than the more sporting forms of big-game hunting, but which can nevertheless be made dangerous if the photographer should so desire. But there is the more scientific side of the question. India provides a magnificent field for the study of the life-histories, the domestic habits, the characteristics of the splendid array of wild animals and birds that it contains – and it is astounding how little is known about many of these creatures. The hunter-naturalist has made many valuable observations at one time and another, but his opportunities are greatly limited because, as a rule, he is interested only in dangerous game or in record heads, and further, his object is naturally to bring his quarry to bag at the first suitable moment so that, with his first shot disappears all the beauty, all the interest of the living animal. The horns will no doubt look very fine on the walls of the Mess or the skin on the floor, but no matter how well they may be mounted, they will never give any idea of the splendour and the beauty they portrayed when carried by their rightful owner.

Ironically, I could have sold a considerable number of copies of ‘Tripwire for a Tiger’ at this event, but as it had been planned at such short notice, there was no time to alert my publisher to send a consignment in time; she would also have been hard pushed to get the books into the post, as she is based in Chennai, which was experiencing the massive upheaval that followed the devastating floods that had hit that city just before. But it just shows what a huge untapped market there is for my grandfather’s writing even today, and it gives me inordinate pleasure to enable him, even though he wrote those pieces eighty or ninety years ago and he has long since departed this world, to inspire a young audience to continue the battles for India’s priceless wildlife heritage that he started so passionately.

Reading my grandfather’s evocative stories is a pleasure to do

After the event, I was interviewed by Times of India journalist Sharad Kohli, and a charming article describing the event appeared in the following day’s Sunday Times. The quote I liked most in the article was: ‘Champion, 52 (that’s me!), proved to be an engaging storyteller himself, fleshing out these tales as if the spirit of FW was in the room.’

The event was well covered in the following day’s Sunday Times

Our afternoon was spent in the beautiful garden and home of friends Ashima and Kumar, where we were treated to a buffet lunch looking out at the low range of hills that adjoins their property. It was a delight to find that 87-year-old Ann Wright, whom we had met a few weeks earlier at Kanha National Park, was also present, and her daughter Belinda Wright, one of the most tireless campaigners for India’s tigers today, joined us later.

Our hosts were proud owners of first editions, complete with dust covers, of both of my grandfather’s books, and it was nice to photograph both of these together with Tripwire. I hope to produce a second volume next year (title not yet decided), featuring the remainder of his articles, followed eventually by a coffee-table volume celebrating FWC’s astonishing wildlife photographs, but a publisher still needs to be found for that product.

A unique sight: two first editions of F W Champion’s books, complete with dustcovers, and Tripwire

The following day, my friend Prasanna Gautam took me off on a final birding bash around the area, and we started at a wetland only a short distance away from our accommodation. This area of watery ground, with patches of open water, reeds and water hyacinth, was absolutely full of birdlife, with rafts of duck, flocks of geese, waders and amazing numbers of brightly coloured Purple Swamphens foraging busily. We were treated to a star performance by a confiding Bluethroat, which hopped ever closer to us, followed by a sighting of my final new bird for the trip, an elusive Ruddy-breasted Crake, which popped out of its reedy hideaway for just long enough to allow me to obtain a few record photographic shots. This bird brought my total to 343 species for the trip, a total which could easily have topped 400 if I had had a couple of birding days in the hills during or after the Kumaon Literary Festival back in October.

Purple Swamphens seemed to particularly favour this doomed wetland

The Bluethroat hopped closer and closer

Bluethroats are not always this confiding

The Ruddy-breasted Crake popped out of its reedy hideaway for a few moments

On the flanks of this productive avian paradise huge new tower blocks were rising into the sky, and I learned that the whole area is now living on borrowed time, the land having already been bought up by developers, so it will have disappeared within a short time. I realise that people need places to live, but would it not be possible to incorporate this wonderful green patch of wildlife habitat into the city plan as an urban nature reserve, as I saw years ago at the Oi Bird Park in Tokyo, and more recently at the WWT’s Wetland Centre in London, which are totally surrounded by urban sprawl and yet attract large numbers of wintering birds, and provide much-loved green spaces for the urban masses?

Prasanna Gautam birding in the Gurgaon wetland as huge apartment blocks rise in the background

With these thoughts in mind, we drove a short distance to a much better protected wetland, the Sultanpur Wildlife Sanctuary, which is the state of Haryana’s only national park. As it was a Sunday, there were large numbers of visitors, but we were still able to enjoy what were to be my last views of waterbirds during this Great Indian Adventure.

Sultanpur really is like a tiny Bharatpur

A female Nilgai crossing one of Sultanpur’s jheels

Sultanpur is a sort of poor man’s Bharatpur, with large numbers of ducks, geese, herons, egrets, ibises and cormorants enjoying the marshy lakes, all easily viewable from the network of raised walkways that crisscross the reserve. A large nesting colony of Painted Storks seems to be thriving, and we were also alerted to a group of Common Cranes in flight above us by their bugling, croaking cries, as they banked to come in to land on the far side of a jheel (pond).

Sultanpur is a protected jewel close to Delhi

A colony of Painted Storks seems to be thriving at Sultanpur

Painted Storks at the nest in Sultanpur

A few Citrine Wagtails were pecking through the grassy lakeside vegetation. These delightful birds are even more brightly coloured than our Grey or Yellow Wagtails, and I drank in their beauty before we headed back to Gurgaon for our final night in India, at the end of what has turned out to be a highly successful tour, which will doubtless lead to many things in the not-too-distant future.

This Citrine Wagtail was one of my last birds of this Great Indian Adventure


Wednesday 23rd December 2015

Chambal and the Skimmers

On one of the days that we were staying in Bharatpur, Rosemary and I had requested a visit to the Chambal River, a must-see location these days for any birder visiting this area of India.

We set off, Sumantha, Bablu and myself crammed into the back seat, and Rosemary and driver Maharaj in the front of our Tata Indica car, for the 60 km journey through some truly grotty Uttar Pradesh towns – one positive factor was the fog, which meant that the litter-strewn environs were not so shocking, but the fog did threaten our chances of spotting wildlife along the Chambal.

A brief stop to check a wetland area on the way turned out to be less brief than we had anticipated. Maharaj dropped Sumantha, Bablu and myself on an elevated flyover which should have afforded good views of the wetland below, and he then drove off into the mist with Rosemary. As it was, we could see virtually nothing, and it was not a pleasant place to stand, with traffic thundering past and the flyover trembling with every passing truck. It seemed ages before the car returned; Maharaj had been unable to find a turning point!

Finally we arrived at a huge bridge over the Chambal at Dholpur, and after crossing it in thick fog, we descended along a muddy track to the riverbank. Here there was a landing stage, and several large signs advertising the area’s wildlife highlights, with exhortations to protect the river’s endangered species, but with large amounts of plastic trash floating by. I always find it so sad to see Black-winged Stilts or other birds picking their way through rubbish discarded by humans.

Initial hopes of good visibility on the Chambal River looked distinctly, or indistinctly, limited!

‘Save Gharial, save Chambal’, exhorted the signs, while plastic trash floated by in what is supposed to an unpolluted river

Although one group of observers did set off in a boat, we were advised to wait a while in the hope that the fog would clear, until finally it was decided that the visibility had improved sufficiently to give us some chance of seeing our main target bird…and we set off.

Rosemary fully prepared for her Chambal excursion

The Chambal River is a tributary of the Yamuna (Jumna), which flows in turn into the Ganges, and it is seen as being one of India’s last great pollution-free river systems, although that did not immediately strike me as being the case. A large section of it is protected as the National Chambal Sanctuary, mainly with the aim of providing a safe habitat for three of India’s most vulnerable wild creatures, the Gangetic Dolphin, the Gharial and the Indian Skimmer.

As a birder, the latter of these three was high on my wants list, and it was not long before some birds on a muddy bank in the distance caused our hopes to rise. We drifted closer, and the fog became thinner, allowing us to gain a better look through the binoculars…and indeed, there they were, three Indian Skimmers perched on the shore.

Were those Indian Skimmers next to the cormorant?

Skimmers are extraordinary birds. Related to terns, they have evolved to exploit a unique feeding style. The lower mandibles of their bright orange bills have become much longer than the upper ones, and they literally skim along the surface of the water, the lower mandible actually in the water, slicing its surface in the hope of scooping up small fish and other aquatic prey. No other bird has a bill like a skimmer, making it one of the World’s great ornithological sights.

Indian Skimmers by the Chambal River, a sight to savour and one that one must hope will still be viewable in the longterm future

There are three species of skimmer, the African Skimmer, a near-threatened species which occurs sparingly from Senegal to Angola and the Zambezi, but is nowhere common, the critically endangered Indian Skimmer, whose population may not far exceed 1,000 birds, and the far more numerous Black Skimmer, which occurs in the Americas and which I had seen in considerable numbers on the Pacific coast of Guatemala in 2011.

As our boat came closer, we were able to drink in the sight of these bizarre birds. Two were asleep for much of the time, although they did wake up briefly, giving us a splendid view of their bright orange bills, which were translucent towards the tip. The third bird, which was standing slightly apart from the others, was engaged in a very heavy bout of preening, scooping up water in its lower mandible, and using it to clean its feathers. I had noticed this behaviour in the Black Skimmers in Guatemala; the birds have to keep their feathers in tiptop condition, as they actually touch the water at times while skimming, and they must not become waterlogged, so they seem to be fastidious in their attention to cleanliness.

Two of the Indian Skimmers were asleep for much of the time

The third Indian Skimmer was scooping up water in its outsized lower mandible to preen itself with

The main threats to the Indian Skimmer are pollution of its riverine habitat, and disturbance on its nesting areas. All large rivers in the Indian subcontinent are under extreme pressure from mining/dredging for sand and gravel, which is used for construction. Trucks rumble around in the riverbeds, and dogs accompany the dredgers. Even the decrease in vultures that I described two posts ago has led to an increase in House Crows, which prey on the eggs and chicks of Indian Skimmers and other riverine birds.

In this area, nests are apparently protected from dogs, roving cattle that trample the nests, and trucks, by being surrounded with cut thorny branches during the nesting season. The authorities are clearly aware of the plight of these vulnerable birds, and such measures do undoubtedly help, although a ring of thorny branches will not prevent crows from raiding the nests.

Villagers’ cattle are a threat to nesting Skimmers, frequently trampling their nests

Having savoured the experience of watching the Skimmers, we headed on, shortly afterwards sighting an Osprey and a Laggar Falcon perched in a tree high on the bank. The Laggar was also a life-bird for me, although it could have been classed as what birders sometimes refer to as an “NBV” – Need Better View!

The impressive sandy cliffs that line this section of the Chambal River

Our focus was then diverted towards what had initially looked like logs on the bank; the first turned out to be a large Gharial, another bizarre creature with a very specific adaptation. Unlike other crocodilians, the Gharial has evolved to eat exclusively fish, and its snout has become elongated and narrow to allow it to grasp the slippery fish in its jaws. It also has a bulbous growth on the tip of its snout, and sometimes only this and its eyes protrude above the surface of the water.

A Gharial, showing its unusual snout with the bulbous growth on the end

Gharials are critically endangered, and it was estimated that the global population was only 235 individuals in 2006, occupying less than 2% of the species’ original range. Major threats are pollution, fishing with gill nets, stealing of eggs by tribal people who consider them a delicacy, and the young being swept out of the protected areas by monsoon floods. We were lucky to see a few individuals here, accompanied by their cousins the Mugger, or Freshwater Crocodile.

An impressively sized Mugger was also on the bank

A distant view of another rare bird species, the Black-bellied Tern, added that species to the ‘NBV’ list, and we were treated to closer sightings of Egyptian Vultures, Bar-headed Geese and Lesser Whistling Ducks, before our two hours were nearly up and we had to return to the jetty.

An Egyptian Vulture by the Chambal River

A small group of Bar-headed Geese resting on the Chambal shore

A flock of Lesser Whistling Ducks enjoying the morning sun

Self feeling pleased to have seen the Indian Skimmer after many years of waiting

It had been a privilege to observe these special creatures, but as with so much of what I have observed during this journey, I felt concerned that I was watching the endgame for so much of India’s wildlife. I often try to console myself with the thought that the country has done wonders to preserve anything at all with its 1.2 billion people, and it is heartening to see how many people are dedicated to wildlife, and no other country in the World has such a marvellous Forest Department (of which my grandfather F W Champion OBE IFS and great uncle Prof. Sir Harry Champion CIE IFS would still be proud), and yet the sight of that trash in what is supposed to be a shining example of an unpolluted river made me sick.

The Chambal is supposed to be an unpolluted river, yet it is lined with trash

After a sandwich lunch by the river, we drove into Dholpur, stopping briefly to look around the impressive Raj Niwas or Dholpur Palace Hotel, a magnificent stately home full of Dutch ceramic tiles, Belgian glass, Victorian bathtubs from the UK, and countless treasures from India and Europe. From here we made our way back through those same grotty towns, this time without the fog to shield us from the grime and plastic filth, until we eventually arrived back in Bharatpur…where we deliberately stopped by another filthy ditch.

Self, Sumantha Ghosh and Rosemary in the magnificent Raj Niwas Palace, in Dholpur

One of my abiding memories of my 1988 visit had been observing another unusual bird, the Painted Snipe. Not a snipe at all, the Painted Snipe is a wading bird in which the normal sex roles are reversed. The female is the brightly coloured one, and she has a harem of males, mating with several and then taking no part in the raising of the chicks. We had seen them in a pristine marshy area outside the park, I remembered, but this time the experience was totally different.

Carefully avoiding stepping into human excrement, Bablu and I picked our way towards the edge of this stinking ditch, which despite (or perhaps because of) the filth that it contained, and despite the loud honking of passing traffic, seemed to be full of birds, mainly Black-winged Stilts, Wood Sandpipers and Pond Herons. It was not long before we had spotted two pairs of Painted Snipe, and although the circumstances were far from ideal, it was a pleasure to reacquaint myself with this delightful species of bird. And the ironic thing is, if all the filthy places with which India abounds were cleaned up, birds like the Painted Snipe would probably suffer.

A Painted Snipe in what was in fact a filthy ditch in Bharatpur town, although it looks quite clean in this picture

A Painted Snipe accompanied by a plastic bag in the Bharatpur ditch