Can you trace the origin of your interest in birds?
I have always been an outdoors person, having spent every possible holiday in a wildlife park. So, the interest was more in the outdoors than in birds. But, living in Delhi, one doesn’t get much of a chance to see and feel the great outdoors. So, from wildlife, I switched to birds — they can be found everywhere and I don’t have to take long journeys to be with them. Also, they can be part of my everyday life and the interest does not have to be restricted to my holidays.
Sharp focus: (clockwise from top left) Devasar switched interest from wildlife to birds; the brown-winged kingfisher; a ferry docked at the Sundarbans; the mangroves. Photographs: Nikhil Devasar
How frequently do you go on birding trips?
We go for field outings in the Delhi area every Sunday morning, but out-of-town visits happen usually once in three months, with as few as two persons or as many as 14. We use the group to collect and collate bird records from India and also help and encourage new enthusiasts and enable birdwatching visitors and short-term residents to meet fellow birders in India.
Why did you zero in on the Sundarbans?
We went to see the mangroves and appreciate for ourselves the spirit of the Bono Bibi (literally, the forest goddess). The Sundarbans are always elusive, always secretive and you never know what to expect. So, you just go.
You travelled to Kolkata and then made your way to the Sundarbans?
Yes, we landed in Kolkata from Delhi, flying over the Sundarbans and the Ganga delta, and got fantastic views of all the winding waterways and silt islands. On landing, we drove for 3 hours to Sonakhali. Halfway past the paddy fields, prawn fisheries and huge brick kilns — the same scenery we’d had aerial views of—we stopped at a little tea shop for the yummiest singaras (Bengali samosas) and, if you could ignore the swarms of bumble bees, scrumptious sandesh (traditional sweets) and mishti doi (sweet curd). At Sonakhali, we boarded a boat that would take us to our camp, a further three hours away. Though a small overcrowded ferry boat pulling away from the jetty had me praying for everyone’s safety, our boat had comfortable sleeping areas and bathrooms with running water.
Where did you stay?
At the Sundarbans Jungle Camp in Bali island, where our rooms resembled mud huts. That night, the local village troupe enacted the story of a little boy, Dukhe, and Bono Bibi, who protects devotees from the perils of the forest, specifically the tiger, which seems to have lost its fear of man and treats him like an easy prey.
That would have set you up for the jungle! What were your experiences there?
We set off early the next morning in the MS Sundari grewali, the spiffiest country boat in the Sundarbans. Our first stop was Sajnekhali, where we had to collect permits to enter the tiger sanctuary. While the formalities were being taken care of, we walked around and saw many birds: Loten’s sunbird, purple-rumped sunbird, common iora, Oriental white-eyes, pompadour green pigeons, green bee-eaters, bronzed drongos, black-capped kingfisher — an extremely handsome bird and quite the commonest — and the brown-winged kingfisher, which shows off a brilliant turquoise rump as it flies.
And then it was time to head out to the Sudhanyakhali Watch Tower with permits in hand. I had an image of the Sundarbans as a dark forest with thick mangroves and narrow channels of water, but nothing could be further from reality. Our boat wouldn’t have been able to make it through smaller canals that cut through the islands, so we sailed in the wider streams and rivers. The islands with the mangroves are on either side, but the trees are short and don’t give you a hemmed-in feeling. In fact, instead of looking dark, the whole area seemed bright, bathed in a silvery light. Bird silhouettes stood out in the brightness — egrets and herons patiently waiting for food, whimbrels running on the banks, common sandpipers bobbing their tails and estuarine crocodiles basking like logs. As we turned a corner, we chanced upon 50-odd lesser whistling teals. We sailed closer, they all got wary and as one turned chicken, they all took off, protesting vehemently. They circled for a bit, and, as you are not allowed to drop anchor or stop anywhere in the sanctuary, we circled with them and got good views when they resettled.
The collared kingfisher. Photograph: Nikhil Devasar
And, at Sudhanyakhali?
At the watch tower, we were greeted by tales of how a tiger had passed by just 15 minutes ago and how the previous day he had lingered around the tower for 5 hours! We had to content ourselves with pugmarks for evidence, though at one point in time we did hear a pig scream. Then it ceased abruptly, turning up our bloodthirsty hopes of seeing a tiger with kill in mouth — but, alas, that was not to be. From the tower, we saw five spotted deer feeding peacefully, three forest wagtails fly by and their spot taken by a group of small minivets. A clamorous reed warbler called and drew our attention, while a water monitor quietly made its way to the water’s edge to bask in the sun. A brown shrike sat still while monkeys raised a racket jumping from tree to tree.
We returned to the land and continued our journey over a breakfast of aloo puri, chutney, fruit, coffee and fresh sweet honey from the forest. Our boatmen got excited at the sight of a collared kingfisher… Then, we spotted a kingfisher sitting on a dry twig on the edge of a pool of stagnant water, near Gosaba—this was the elusive blue-eared kingfisher, of which there had been no confirmed sighting in the Sundarbans for several years.
A little further, a green-billed malkoha flew out of the forest and sat on a tree, in clear view for a few minutes. In the Sundarbans, you only get to see the birds if they are gracious enough to come out and sit on the trees on the shore, since you are not allowed to get off and walk on any of the islands.
Did you do any more of these excursions?
We went to the Dobanki camp, sailed to the Panch Mukhani, the confluence of five rivers — Dobakhi, Khona Khali, Pir Khali, Gomti and Betda—and saw whimbrels, lesser sand plovers, Eurasian curlews and common redshanks on the mud banks exposed by the low tide. It’s actually possible to see the tide marks on the mangrove tree trunks: They are wet and dark up to a level and even the leaves have two different shades. At Dobanki, we saw a yellow wagtail, white-throated fantail, black redstart, great tit, common, white-throated, collared and black-capped kingfishers. And on our way back to Bali, we saw two dolphins, dark fins and tail flues, in the distance.
Fly to Kolkata and hire a cab for the 3-hour drive to the Sundarbans.
Textiles professional Nikhil Devasar , 40, travelled to the Sundarbans for a week in December with five other birdwatchers, ranging in age from 38 to 70. It wasn’t his first trip, but the Sundarbans, as he says, are ‘always elusive, always secretive — you never know what to expect’
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Share your last holiday with us at firstname.lastname@example.org