Sunday, April 05, 2020

2020-02-20-23 Sundarbans

In school I had studied about Sundarbans, a large delta formed due to the convergence of two great rivers The Ganga and The Brahmaputra into the Bay of Bengal.

Now reading again about it, for the forthcoming birding trip I came to know that this largest inter-tidal delta has a unique mangrove ecosystem supporting abundunt flora and fauna.

Here I have tried to show the small part of it which we moved around and some important places / points which we visited.

It is around 10,000 sq km in size with 40% in India and rest in Bangladesh.
It is made up of 102 islands out of which 52 are inhabited and 48 reserved forest.
It has also got a UNESCO world heritage status.
Sundarban name is believed to be derived from the most abundant mangrove tree found in this  area the Sundari (Heritiera fomes).
Sundari trees planted at Sanjnekhali

Gosaba is the largest island and nearest to the mainland. Gadkhali is a port on mainland from where ferrys are available to reach various islands of Sundarban.

My travel started with a flight from Mumbai to Kolkata, reaching Kolkata airport at around 7am.
I was alone on this flight from the group since I did a last minute booking.

In November 2019 I had seen a message from Adesh & Mandar announcing Nature India's first trip to Sundarban in Feb 2020 and I was immediately interested.
But looking at the dates I realized that it was not possible in that week due to earlier work commitments, so I left the topic there itself .
Then in Feb 1st week I received another message from Adesh that there has been a cancellation and that if anyone was interested in joining. Till that time there had been some changes in my schedule and it was possible. So i immediately conveyed to Adesh my interest and by evening had already booked my flight tickets.

There was only one trip before this which I had done to the Eastern part of India and that was to Eaglenest & Nameri, that too with Nature India back in 2011.

One of the interesting part of birding in Sundarbans is that all the sightings are to be done from the boat which is equipped with a kitchen, lot of space to move around, a kitchen and a washroom.

The boat on which we traveled for 3 days (20th Feb 2020 afternoon till 23rd Feb 2020 afternoon) was owned by an amazing birding guide Nityananda . The name of the boat was Shardul meaning the Tiger and he had taken the pains to paint the boat in camouflaged colors. Thanks to Mandar Khadilkar for the below pic.

Nityananda is not just a knowledgeable birder but he is extremely soft spoken & a wonderful human being, has a fantastic crew especially the driver who navigated the boat very skillfully giving us amazing views of birds and the cook who prepared delicious meals.

For nights sleep we use to dock on the Bally Island. Hardly a few meters from jetty is the J.D. Camp resort. It has very clean and with spacious rooms. The dinner used to be also served by Nityananda's crew.

20th Feb 2020 - Kolkata - Canning - Gadkhali - J.D. Camp : Surprise birding & anxiety at Canning & Collared kingfisher everywhere

On 20th after meeting the whole group with Adesh and Mandar at Kolkata Airport we proceeded towards Gadkhali. On the way we stopped for a short break at Canning, West Bengal. Short break turned into a long one with anxiety as our bus refused to start, but it also turned out to be an amazing birding break.

A Blue throated barbet pair were preparing a nest nearby and we got some very close views on a tree nearby.

A common hawk cuckoo was calling in the background for sometime and suddenly it decided to fly to a nearby tree to give us some wonderful views.

Also got Brown Shrike(Lucionensis subspecies) also called Philippine Shrike

Few others sightings seen here: Black Hooded Oriole, Indian Silverbill, White Breasted Waterhen, Red Vented Bulbul (Bengalensis sub species), etc.

Finally all was fine and we reached Gadkhali late afternoon. All our luggage was boarded on the boat and started to sail.

Everyone was quite hungry and we had lunch while looking out for birds.
Here is a one of the days lunch served and ready to be eaten. Thanks Adesh for this pic.

We went through a canal which is between Gosaba island and Bally island and this place was amazing for sighting the Collared kingfisher. They were quite bold here and allowed us good views.

Nityananda told us that Collared kingfisher are common here because the Black Capped kingfisher which are more aggresive prefer to be around the reserved forest areas and they drive away these Collared Kingfisher to these outer areas.

Pied Kingfishers were also quite common in this canal and we got some amazing views in return on 23rd.

We reached J.D. Camp Resort by around 5.30pm just before the sunset.

We had some quick snacks & tea, took bath, had dinner and retired early to bed as it was quite a long day for all starting from home in the morning at around 3-4am.

21st Feb 2020 -  Sajnekhali, Mangrove interpretation center & first sighting of Jungle Cat & Brown Winged Kingfisher

There was lot of fog outside in the early morning.

This being our first day into the National Park we had to first visit Sajnekhali to get the permit. We started at 6.30am.

Our first sighting of the day was the Jungle Cat. It was amazing to see the young one playing around and the mother sitting besides in the mangroves.

And not to forget the Common Kingfisher also gave us some good pics. Adesh and Mandar explained how to differentiate a female common kingfisher from a male. Female's lower mandible is red while that of male if complete black. So the upper one is female and lower one is the male.

I would highly recommend to keep some extra time to visit Bon Bibi temple, Indian Terrapin & Crocodile breeding center, govt outlet selling honey & local artifacts like bags made of jute, cotton towels & apparels.

But most importantly its worth spending atleast 30min - 1hour for viewing the Mangrove Interpretation Center.. Forest department has taken lot of efforts to display boards about Sundarban topography , various flora & fauna, culture & lifestyle of locals, work being done by forest department for conservation of Mangroves, Tigers & other flora& fauna, etc. Lot of things to learn.

We also had some interesting bird sightings as well here
- Brown shrike (Philippine Shrike)
- Pair of Large Cuckooshrikes
- Roosting colony of Black Crowned Night Herons along the crocodile breeding center
- Ashy woodswallows in large numbers
- Taiga flycatcher
- Common Redstart
Large CuckooshrikeBrown Shrike (Philippine Shrike)

All these islands with towers have one entry point and another exit point, guess to avoid too many boats lining up at one jetty.

After leaving we tried another chance at the Jungle cat and now it was sitting outside with the kitten. Very good views.

People do farming too on the islands which are inhabitated. Difficult to imagine how they would be getting the tractors on boat? Here it is :-)

We were amazed time and again about Nityananda's sighting skill. He asked the boatman to slow down and then veer towards a coast. Till we reached pretty close to the shore we could not spot a Brown Winged kingfisher sitting in a very low plant staring down at the water.
It did not give the best views for photography but none the less it was amazing to just watch it.

After that we had ample opportunities to watch this beauty though it is not as abundant as the Collared or Black Capped kingfisher but still its not very rare.

The Brown and Blue contrast is simply amazing.

As we moved around the delta we saw one more speciality the Lesser Adjutant Stork. It has a very odd looks with a neck which looks weathered and the grey-blue eyes. In flight the gular pouch is very easily visibile.

We also caught a Collared Kingfisher catching a fiddler crab and it was amazing to watch to try to gulp the whole, which it was able to do after multiple attempts.

In the evening just before calling it the day a Peregrine falcon gave us some amazing views and with that we discussed about why the structure of peregrine is slender and straight as compared to a Shikra. These kind of discussions are the best part of the trip with Nature India.

The day was not only filled with amazing bird sightings but also some other sightings.
Wild Boar
Spotted Deer
Water Monitor
Estuarine crocodile

Every evening at the dinner table we had many such discussions evolving from a question that some participant would come up with and Adesh and Mandar with their storage of knowledge would enlighten us with many facts. Some topics discussed:
- Distribution of different kingfisher species in mangroves and inland: Ruddy kingfisher seen mainly during breeding only in Sundarban and at that time smaller kingfisher like collared move out
- Crop milk triggered by the video of flamingo circulating on whatsapp : This is common in many other bird species like pigeons etc

22nd Feb 2020 : Dobanki : Day of Black Capped kingfisher , another lifer Green Billed Malkoha and on the trail of tiger

On this day we were going to travel to the farthest point till the boundary of tourist area where core area starts and no one is allowed to go beyond this point.

So we started early at 6am itself. This morning was even more foggier than yesterday. We took canal in front of the Sudhnyakhali watch tower but we did not get down here as we had to go far today.

At the resort itself we had many calls and sightings.
Common Iora, Blyth's reed warbler,  Blunt winged warbler, Bronzed drongo, White throated Fantail, etc.

The sightings started with wonderful views of Black Capped Kingfisher.

Further along the shores we could hear many birds like fire breasted flowerpecker, Greater Flameback, Common Iora, Greenish Warbler and Abbots Babbler and saw a few like Brown Capped Pygmy Woodpecker & Ashy Woodswallows.

Ashy WoodswallowAshy Woodswallow

We went deep inside where the canals were much narrower.  The tide was receding so it was becoming much narrower.

Many of the banks here were lined with Tiger Palms. These are also called Mangrove Date Palms and their leaves are palm like with intermitent yellow green giving a good camouflage to tigers.

At one point Nityananda saw a movement far away on a tree on the shore of an island and immediately said Green Billed Malkoha. Everyone moved their binocs in that direction and we could see a bird hopping like a coucal and then it took off to another tree and one could see it clearly.

But in all this excitment we could feel some tension with Nityananda and crew. The boat had got stuck as the water levels were low but with very effecient movements by boats crew and Nityananda and with the help of another boat which was luckily passing by we got out of the situation and all ended well with the lifer sighting.

Earlier to this incident we had also visited the Dobanki watch tower.
From the jetty towards the watch tower is a bridge with mangroves beneath and its also called "Canopy Walk".
From here we could get a feeling of how the islands could be in Sundarbans with mangroves all around and land pretty dry and flat.

In the canopy walk we got good views of a Greenish warbler and Blyth's reed warbler.

From the watchtower a water body was visible and in that there was a Water Monitor swiming from one reeds to another.

In between got good views of Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel and Redshanks.

 From the malkoha point we exited the narrow channel and came to a very big river called "Bidyadhari River" it seemed like we were in sea because it was atleast 10-15km wide.

Here we saw multiple schools of Irrawaddy Dolphins. Could not get good pics. Just posting a record.

Later we had an amazing sighting of a huge 10ft long Estuarine crocodile which then entered into the water
and a huge Water Monitor.

All this time Nityananda and we were looking out for the tiger but Nityanada explained us how they try to track the tiger movement. I have visited Tadoba multiple times and the drivers there are able to track the tiger movement by the pugmarks it leaves on the dry mud. It can be seen for longer distances if the tiger has walked on the mud trails.
But here in Sundarbanks tigers swim across islands so there is no trail left. But what Nityananda told us that most the times tigers travel along the periphery of the islands and need to cross the small canals criss crossing the island. This leaves a trail and that helps them to know based on its freshness if they are still on the island or have left an island.

We saw one such trail of tiger and also mostly otters and a spotted deer.

It was a long day and ended with the sightings of a darter, purple heron, and a big flock of Lesser Whistlings ducks.
Purple HeronOriental Darter

We saw the sun setting in the water before returning back to the J.D. Camp

23rd Feb 2020: Birding around Resort and return journey

Next day morning we had to leave by atleast 8.30am since we needed to reach Gadkhali and then a 5hours journey with a lunch break back to Kolkata by 4pm.

But we did quick birding around the resort itself and got some good sightings.
It was also quite picturesque around the village.

There were the regulars
- Bronzed drongo
- Chestnut tailed starling
- Black drongo
- Red vented bulbul (bengalensis sub species)
- Coppersmith barbet.
Additionally we got a
- Taiga flycatcher
- Common Tailor
- Dusky warbler
- Clamorous reed warbler
- Streak throated swallow
- Spotted Dove
- Brown shrike(nominate subspecies cristatus)
- Green Beeeater
- White Breasted Waterhens and
- surprise in terms of an Yellow Bittern sitting very stead in a small water pond next of the trail.

Red Vented Bulbul (Bengalensis subspecies)Common Tailor

Spotted DoveStreak Throated Swallow

The return jouney through the canal to Gadkhali was completely taken over by Pied Kingfisher pair.

Overall a wonderful trip ended with the sweet buying at a shop called Mishti Hub on the way to the airport.

Here are some general snaps


सुवर्णा said...

खूपच छान फोटो आणि माहिती, फोटो बघून आपणही जायला पाहिजे असं वाटतंय.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the information.
Well written and illustrated

Anant Kulkarni said...

Wow ! Thanks Alok for such a wonderful blog. Excellent photos and equally good sharing of the siting experiences. Will like to talk more when we meet.

Ujo said...

Excellent story telling. I loved the details, it was as if i experienced it all through the pictures and words!

Amey said...

Lovely :)