‘In 1690, Job Charnok, an agent of the East India Company chose a site for a British trade settlement. The site was carefully selected, being protected by the Hooghly River on the west, a creek to the north, and by salt lakes about two and a half miles to the east. Three large villages along the east bank of the River Ganges, named Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kalikata, were bought by the British from local land lords. The Mughal emperor granted the East India Company freedom of trade in return for a yearly payment of 3,000 rupees.
How did the city get the name Kolkata/Calcutta? There are a number of different opinions:
- From the name of one of the original villages: Kalikata is derived from the Bengali word Kalikshetra, meaning “Ground of the Goddess Kali.”
- Some say the city’s name derives from the location of its original settlement on the bank of a canal (khal).
- Some match it to the Bengali words for “lime” (kali) and “burnt shell” (kata), since the area was noted for the manufacture of shell-lime.
- Another opinion is that the name is derived from the Bengali term kilkila (meaning, “flat area”), which is mentioned in old literature.’
The Queen Victoria Memorial and the Kolkata Racecourse
This was my first trip to Kolkata (or Calcutta as it was known until 2001) and I arrived on a monsoon-washed, grey afternoon that looked distinctly unpromising – fortunately the grotty weather cleared up overnight and the morning was clear and dry, and I’ve just spent an excellent five hours with two doyens of the local birding scene – Sujan Chatterjee and Sumit Sen, who responded to an RFI on the Oriental Bird listserver and generously gave up their time to show a very hot and sweating English birder/blogger around
I knew very little about Kolkata and its birds before I came here (and I would have known even less if it hadn’t been for the information I’d found at Sumit Sen’s increasingly comprehensive and excellent website Kolkata Birds) – previous visits to India had taken me to Mumbai (Bombay) and Delhi but the eastern part of India was a bit of a mystery. Driving round with Sumit and Sujan was a real education, and much of what follows is derived from our conversations…
Built around the mouth of the Ganges, Kolkata was, until the British arrived in the late 1690s, a small group of fishing villages surrounded by mangroves, creeks, and mud. It is now the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal and the ninth largest urban area on the planet: a huge, sprawling city of (according to a 2001 census) some 13 million people – some rich, many “middle-class” and some disturbingly poor. If you’ve not been to India before Kolkata may well come as a bit of a shock at first – but once you can look beyond the poverty of parts of this densely-packed place (and the reality is that to function here you need to) this is a complex and urbane city, with some wonderful buildings, and some of the friendliest people you could ever hope to meet.
A real effort is being made to tidy the city up after the uncontrolled industrialisation of the last hundred years – apparently students regularly plant trees as part of school projects now – but even residents cheerfully admit that there’s still some way to go and parts of the city are in danger of getting buried under piles of waste (being positive, it’s all food for the patrolling Black Kites I suppose). It’s also hot, crowded and very noisy – every driver on the chaotic roads sound their horns at every other driver whenever they overtake – but this is generally part of the “India” experience: love it or hate it, there’s no getting away from it.
Getting back to the birding, there are some easily-reached sites within the city limits that provide a good number of locally-common species. Many are fairly typical of the subcontinent (and any birder who has visited India before will probably already have seen many of them), but the city is increasingly being used as a base to get to the Sundarbans – which has a number of good endemics – and if this is a first visit you’ll quickly pick up a wide-range of interesting birds. The region really comes into its own during the winter months when the Northern Asian and Siberian migrants return – Sumit reeled off a list of species when I asked him how many warblers it was possible to see in a day, and apparently this is one of the best areas in India to see Blunt-winged Warbler – and it’s not at it’s “birdy” best in the middle of September (sadly the airline doesn’t roster me with one eye on where the best birding is – I suggest we start a mailing campaign folks). Still, I was here now, and determined to make the most of it – and making “the most of it” is certainly possible if you’ve got someone like Sujan, a very friendly and knowledgeable guide, at your side to help ID everything that flies, hops, or swims by!
Indian Botanic Gardens:
We began the morning at the Indian (Kolkata) Botanical Gardens, 8kms from the city centre and on the bank of the River Ganges itself. Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity will know that I’m a great fan of Botanic Gardens: they’re usually fairly safe, have a reasonable selection of common birds, and are usually well-known to taxi-drivers (thankfully, because how on Earth an overseas birder would find the obscure entrance to the Kolkata Gardens on their own I can’t imagine). This year so far I’ve already been to Botanic Gardens in Rio de Janeiro, Singapore, and Melbourne – but I have to say that Kolkata’s have been my favourite. It’s a wonderfully overgrown and beautiful place, full of untidy lakes and huge trees, winding paths and dark, shaded patches that could contain any number of obscure Indian birds (they don’t of course – this is the middle of a huge city after all – but they look like they could). They look vastly different to eg Singapore’s more manicured and less bird-friendly Gardens: I mentioned this to Sujan, incidentally, who said that the difference was due to a lack of money being spent. Of course, but from a birding point of view they’re so much the better for it…
There’s a full list of species at the end of this report, so I won’t go through everything we saw here, but a selection of common species we saw in the Gardens included Indian Pond Heron, Bronze-winged Jacana, Greater Coucal, Ring-necked Parakeet, Jungle Babbler, Indian Palm Swift, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Shikra, Rufous Treepie, and the ubiquitous Black Kite, House Crow, Common Myna, and Spotted Dove.
Less “common” birds we saw included Brown Shrike, Spotted Owlet (check the bare tree in the car-park, the owls are often seen here) , Black-rumped Flameback, Alexandrine Parakeet (probably feral), Common Hawk Cuckoo, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, and three species of Barbet (Coppersmith, Blue-throated and Lineated) together in one large fruiting tree with the pigeon.
Sujan Chatterjee (left) and Sumit Sen (right) checking out barbets in a fig tree.
Lineated Barbet Megalaima lineata
Female Black-rumped Flameback Dinopium benghalense
Common Hawk Cuckoo Hierococcyx varius
Shikra Accipiter badius
Black Kite Milvus migrans
Jungle Babbler Turdoides striatus
If you do happen to be in Kolkata, and visit the Botanic Gardens, then it’s also definitely worth checking out the Gardens’ star attraction – the “Great Banyan Tree”.
Sumit and Sujan told me about the great banyan tree as we were walking towards what looked like a large clump of bushes and (to be honest) at the time I was a little underwhelmed. Naively I was thinking that “great” trees were “tall” trees (like a Californian Redwood) – or that there would be at least one thick-trunked tree dwarfing the others (like an old oak dominating an English woodland perhaps).
It wasn’t until they explained that the “clump of bushes” in front of us was in fact a single tree – a massive, multi-limbed, 250-year old Banyan Ficus benghalensis occupying almost 14,500 sq metres, with a main trunk 13 feet (4 meters) in diameter, 230 trunks as large as oak trees, and more than 2,800 aerial roots – that I understood what all the fuss is about!
It’s quite an amazing sight really…and in remarkably good shape considering that it’s been damaged in cyclones, attacked by fungal infections, and has withstood the emergence of an entire city around it over the last few hundred years.
And this really is one very famous tree – try googling “banyan tree calcutta” to see what I mean…
Our next stop was at an area of mixed grassland/wetland accessible off a newly-built road, the Rajarhat Bypass. After the luxuriant growth of the Gardens the area looked a little bare and birdless, but we soon found good numbers of Asian Open-billed Storks, a Pheasant-tailed Jacana (a local rarity), and the first Green Sandpiper of the autumn. In the tall grass were a few Plain Prinia and overhead one or two Zitting Cisticola, and – possibly my bird of the day – the stunning, dark-headed form of Long-tailed Shrike tricolor.
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius scach tricolor
Traffic on the bypass is fairly light right now and there’s no problem stopping the car and getting out any point (which meant crunching to a halt to photograph the Black-shouldered Kite below was not a problem). Sadly, this isn’t likely to be the case for much longer – as with any development the road comes first, followed by the buildings, then the people. According to Sujan the entire area will be lost within a year as the creeping suburbs reach out and swallow it up…
Black-shouldered Kite Elanus caerulus
Asian Openbill Anastomus oscitans
Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus
Our last stop was Nalban, where we ended up looking over some rather birdless wetlands. At the right time of day and the right time of year the lakes here (operated as fish-farms by the local council) can be excellent for waterfowl and herons, but by the time we got there (and you can blame the blogger/photographer for taking too long trying to get photos of House Crows and Jungle Babblers earlier in the day) it was very, very hot and of course few migrants had arrived yet, so it was more of a recce visit than anything.
The area is certainly good for Indian Pond Herons and the usual Asian Pied Mynas, House Cows, and Spotted Doves. It’s one of the few places in the area to see Grey Herons (though few western birders will spend too much time looking for them of course), and we also saw a second Brown Shrike and the only two Barn Swallows of the trip. It wasn’t the best birding of the day, but I’d be happy to go back in the winter…I have to admit though that after about 30 minutes around midday in September I was ready to head back to the hotel and the air-conditioning…
Indian Pond Heron Ardeola grayii
I had a really great time, and I’d like to thank both Sujan and Sumit for their welcome and courtesy (these are two genuinely friendly people). Sujan guides for overseas visitors, and I’d have no hesitation at all in recommending him. Contact details are below…
As a final point, what we didn’t see was almost as striking as what we did see: we didn’t see any bulbul species (very strange given how ubiquitous they can be elsewhere) and, more importantly, there wasn’t a single Vulture sp to be seen anywhere – a fearsome indictment of the mis-use of pharmaceuticals as many birders will know (if you don’t know, there has been a more than 95% decline in India’s vultures over the last ten years or so because of the widespread use of a livestock anti-inflammatory called Diclofenac which once ingested by vultures feeding on carcasses causes visceral gout and kidney failure – from being a common sight in the skies over India the Indian White-backed Vulture and the Long-billed Vulture are now considered to be seriously threatened with extinction.)
English and scientific names mainly from “Birds of Southern India”, Grimmett R. and T. Inskipp., Helm, 2005:
Black-rumped Flameback Dinopium benghalense 3; Lineated Barbet Megalaima lineata 3; Blue-throated Barbet Megalaima asiatica 4-5; Coppersmith Barbet Megalaima haemacephala 3; Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 3-4; Stork-billed Kingfisher Halcyon capensis 3-4; White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis 3-4; Common Hawk Cuckoo Hierococcyx varius 1; Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopacea c) 20; Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis 5-6; Alexandrine Parakeet Psittacula eupatria 2; Ring-necked Parakeet Psittacula krameri 20+; Asian Palm Swift Cypsiurus balasiensis 40+; Little Swift Apus affinis 30+ (at dusk); Spotted Owlet Athene brama 2; Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis +; Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto 6; Orange-breasted Green Pigeon Treron bicincta 1; White-breasted Water-hen Amaurornis phoenicurus c)10; Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus 2-3; Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus 1; Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos 1; Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus 1; Bronze-winged Jacana Metopidius indicus 4; Red-wattled Lapwing Vanellus indicus 1; Black-shouldered Kite Elanus caerulus 1; Black Kite Milvus migrans 40+; Shikra Accipiter badius 3; Little Cormorant Phalcrocorax niger c)20; Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis +; Grey Heron Ardea cinerea 5; Indian Pond Heron Ardeola grayii 20+; Black-crowned Night-heron Nycticorax nycticorax 30+; Asian Openbill Anastomus oscitans c)20; Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus 2; Long-tailed Shrike Lanius scach tricolor 2; Rufous Treepie Dendrocitta vagabunda 4; House Crow Corvus splendens ++; Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos 6-8; Black-hooded Oriole Oriolus xanthornus 2-3; Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus c)10; Oriental Magpie Robin Copsychus saularis 1; Chestnut-tailed Starling Sturnus malabaricus 2; Asian Pied Starling Sturnus contra 20+; Common Myna Acridotheres tristis +; Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 2; Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 3-4; Plain Prinia Prinia inornata 2-3; Jungle Babbler Turdoides striatus 5-6; Purple-rumped Sunbird Nectarinia zeylonica 1; House Sparrow Passer domesticus +
Although I have traveled throughout the country, my primary interest is birding in the North Eastern part of India.
North Eastern India is home to more than 850 species of birds and is considered as being the richest birding area in the country. I am offering guided birding tours covering the best birding areas to:
- Duars, Lava, Darjeeling, Sandakphu, Sunderbans in West Bengal
- Pelling, Yuksom, Ravangla, Varsey and Gangtok in Sikkim
- Chilka lake in Orissa
- Kaziranga, Dibru-Saikowa, Manas and Nameri in Assam
- Shillong and Cherrapujee in Meghalaya
- Namdhapa, Eagle’s Nest, Pakke, Mehao, Sessa, Tippi, Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh
Fees: I charge US$130 per person per day for 1-5 person and US$ 110 per person per day for 6-10 persons. This is inclusive of all land travel costs, food, water, stay and guide charges
Visit my web site www.helptourism.com.