I was in Kolkata when a friend told me about a birders' gathering being organized at Santragachhi jheel by Prakriti Samsad, one of the older naturalist organizations in Bengal. I immediately cleared my decks for that Saturday and headed out to the Jheel.

A purple heron staking out an island in the jheel. More than forty lesser whistling ducks are visbile (many seem like blobs in the vegetation). A pond heron can be seen to the right. A railway junkyard in the background. (Click to enlarge)

Santragachhi is a station which I have passed over countless times on my way to Kharagpur in earlier years, and the Jheel is right next to the railway line (on the side opposite to Bombay Road). In earlier years, the jheel had deteriorated considerably, and was used as a rubbish dump. Also, people had tried to clean out the vegetation etc., but concerted efforts by locals and others, along with the protected status it has received, has resulted in a return to nature. Today it attracts a large migrant population despite being in a very urban area.

click any picture to enlarge

Bronze-winged Jacana walking on the water hyacinth locally known as pAnA.

A small platform with chairs had been set up by the jheel, and people were unpacking spotting scopes when we arrived. The first thing that greeted me was two bronze-winged jacanas that were hovering on the other side of the fence, along with a white-breasted waterhen. While the latter I have seen several times, I have no really good shots of a Jacana. That lacuna was soon fixed...

I was introduced to Kushal Mukherjee, one of the founding members, who was leading a bird census around the jheel that day. They went around with the spotting scope, mapping out regions of the jheel, and returned with a count of 5068 birds, of which about 95% were Lesser Whistling Ducks, with about 1% each for Northern Pintails, Common Teal, Gadwalls, and Indian Cormorants.

Prakriti Samsad volunteers helping the general public view the birds through a spotting scope

The census was over by 10:30 and then the spotting scopes on their tripods were set up at several points around the jheel for the common public. A bunch of schoolkids arrived in uniform, everyone wearing nametags like "gadwall-7", and went around the jheel getting their taste of birding. I was told that there would be hordes more people tomorrow (Sunday), but today the spotting scopes weren't that busy...

White-breasted Waterhen

Bronze-winged Jacana

The bronze-winged jacana is a resident bird. The census found 7 of these.

Common Moorhen

Lesser Whistling Duck

Lesser whistling duck (Bangla: সরল ) is a species that breeds in South Asia. At the Santragachhi jheel, you can see them in great numbers, floating around, and also lining the entire shoreline - often what you think is floating hyacinth may turn out to be one of these ducks.

Like some other species like the Norther Pintail, the entire flock takes off at dusk, darkening the sky, and reputedly settles for the night in nearby rice fields. They return every morning just before dawn.

Lesser whistling ducks at the Southern edge

Display and Take-offs

Northern Pintail

An important migratory species, widespread across the globe. The males are relatively easy to spot because of their prominent size (about 0.7m) and head colouration. The pointy tail is what gives it its name. The female is duller and a bit smaller (0.6m), and has a less peaked tail. This years census found 56 pintails in the jheel.

Two males in procession

Northern Pintail: Male and Female

Pintail male, among the pana, and on shore

Two males, and same two males with Female

Can you find the three whistling ducks and four pintails in this little patch of pAnA?

White-breasted Kingfisher

Is this kingfisher scratching its beak?

Swinhoe's Snipe

This is a migrant from the hills of in the wild reaches of Upper Mongolia. One would like to think that Genghis Khan may have dined on some in his childhood; after all it was a dispute over gamebirds that caused Genghis to kill his step-brother Bekter.

The trans-Himalayan flight seems quite a feat for this small, pudgy bird with its huge beak, but it is an agile flier. Four of them were sighted at the jheel this census, two of which you will find below.

Salim Ali writes in the Handbook (Swinhoe's is no. 407) how the Swinhoes and Pintail snipes (no. 406) were prized as game birds because of their tendency to go "off at a tremendous pace in a series of angular zigzags. It is this lightning zigzag that provides the element of sport to snipe shooting, and disappointing bags to mediocre shots!" He later refers to its "flying at great speed with its peculiar angular rolling movements, calling from time to time." Game counts from the British era are cited as evidence of the prevalence of different snipes - over 37 seasons from 1898 to 1934, 13,530 pintails were shot as opposed to 2,312 fantail snipes. Of the pintail count, Ali suggests that many may have been Swinhoe's - the only way to tell the difference is after the bird is captured; on inspecting the tail feathers, the middle six are broader in the Swinhoe's.

[As an aside, it is such pungent observations that make Salim Ali a delightful read, compared to the dour understatements of more politically correct authors like Grimmett/Inskipp. (see also observations by JC Daniel on the re-christening of hundreds of Indian bird species).]

Every year, a few of these otherwise not too common birds can usually be spotted at nearly the same areas of the jheel.

While editing the pictures, I discovered this sequence in which a rather fuzzy snipe is getting into the water...

You can find a much better quality image of the snipe, by Supriyo Samanta on the Prakriti Samsad website.

Common Teal

These migrants usually arrive from North Central Asia. They are a bit smaller in size (about 35cm long). The head colouration, especially for the male in breeding plumage, is very bright and prominent. There were 81 in this year's census.


Another migrant from North Asia, the Gadwall's have a dark beak and black tail. Sometimes, a line running through the eye. The female, as usual, is hard to tell. This census found 61.

These images are rather smudgy.

Gadwall males

Gadwall male-female pair

Female - but I am not too sure of the ID.

Yellow Bittern

Resident. Not too common, though - Grewal marks it with a little dot ("uncommon"). Hard to spot because of its excellent camouflage against vegetation, and also because it tends to adopt a low posture, and freeze if disturbed. Somewhat similar but smaller than the Pond Heron. Black wings in flight distinguish it from the pond heron's white.


Indian pond heron

Widespread resident. konch bak in bAngla (Salim Ali); bAgulA in the hindi spoken around Kanpur.

Much more commonly seen than the rather similar looking yellow bittern.

Little Cormorant

I am not too confident of this ID; might be an Indian too. There were 46 Indian cormorants and 12 Little cormorants in the census, so the prior probability argues for Indian. However, the slightly shorter beak argues for the little.

Long-tailed Shrike

This species was not in the census; most likely it flew in later ( photo from ~ 1PM).

White Wagtail

In the census count (image of handwritten sheet), only one wagtail was apparent in the morning, but by 1PM we have at least two on this island (see bottom image).

Purple Heron

Amid the grass in the middle of the frame is a purple heron with its throat bent in a tight "S". (Click to enlarge)

Pariah Kite

Black Drongo

Birders will go ooh-aah over the Northern pintail, but the black drongo was not even counted in the census, and not commented on. It is just too common.

A primary criteria for something to be beautiful is that it has to be uncommon. Being common doesn't make you un-beautiful, it just makes you invisible.

NOTE: Pardon me if the images are rather pedestrian - these photographs were taken with a hand-held point and shoot camera - one of the compact superzooms, the Canon sx20IS. There is a distinct difference in quality with a DSLR with a long lens, but I feel this camera does provide a good compromise in terms of price and convenience.

The jheel is a lot cleaner now than in earlier years, I am told. View from east shore.

Amitabha Mukerjee January 19, 2010   Feedback: m u k e r j e e [at] g m a i l