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.
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.
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)
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
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
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...
Prakriti Samsad volunteers helping the general public view the birds through
a spotting scope
The bronze-winged jacana is a resident bird. The census found 7 of these.
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
Lesser whistling ducks at the Southern edge
Display and Take-offs
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
Is this kingfisher scratching its beak?
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).]
You can find a much better quality image of the snipe,
by Supriyo Samanta
on the Prakriti Samsad website.
While editing the pictures, I discovered this sequence in which a rather
fuzzy snipe is getting into the water...
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
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 male-female pair
Female - but I am not too sure of the ID.
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.
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.
Amid the grass in the middle of the frame
is a purple heron with its throat bent in a tight "S". (Click to enlarge)
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
A primary criteria for something to be beautiful is that it has to be
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
Amitabha Mukerjee January 19, 2010 Feedback: m u k e r j e e [at] g m a i l