Sundarbans Diary – In celebration of alert laziness

On the last leg of her sojourn in the Indian Sundarbans in West Bengal, Jennifer Nandi enjoys an off-day that turns out quite rewarding



Jan 11, 2010 


Our definition of a pleasant morning – few tourists! We enjoy a slow walk on one of the islands to a watchtower – the walkways leading up to it are securely fenced off to provide protection against sudden tiger intrusion.


A thirsty bird of prey lands on a protruding root of a tree at the water’s edge. Searching for distinctive features, we quarrel over its identification and conclude that it’s a Besra (Accipiter virgatus). It’s a wonderful luxury knowing the names of these birds – but it isn’t really necessary to identify them. Even if you don’t know the names of birds, you can always just watch. Watching becomes an interesting habit. It’s what one can always do while waiting, especially while waiting. And birds provide such thrilling moments. But the key to one’s enjoyment is the knowledge that accompanies the thrill. It is with understanding of the phenomenon called life, that one’s joy is enhanced. I’m eternally gratified to have the explanation while witnessing any of life’s dramas unfold. So here I am, delighted anew, because delight is more often than not, sudden and utterly unexpected.


Back on the boat, blurred images of non-bird-like movement fill our binocular-aided vision. Jumping from the prop-roots of the mangroves onto the broad mudflats up ahead are mudskippers so named for their ability to hop across the mud using their tails for propulsion. Their stumpy pectoral fins enable them to “walk” across the exposed mud. Some cling to vertical proproots or tree trunks using their pelvic fins that have fused together to form suckers. To breathe out of water, they carry a mixture of air and water in their gill chambers. If however, they open their mouths to feed, this fluid comes gushing out! Then of course the mudskipper must dash back to the water’s edge to gulp another mouthful. They have a peculiar appearance with eyes on the tops of their heads. We see some resting in shallow water with their bodies fully submerged but for the eyes. It’s an interesting way to keep an eye on what is happening in the world! 


A scuttling, lopsided Fiddler Crab distracts us – it’s a male. He has one claw that is out of all proportion to its body – all to attract a mate! We spin our heads abruptly to the sound of raucous communication by Kingfishers, signalling the sun’s progression toward the horizon. They resume activity at this part of the day with vocalisations to intimidate rivals fighting for favoured fishing rights.

If a Pied Kingfisher sights a fish near the surface it will aim and plunge, with wings folded, from a height of anything up to 10 metres. Watching this bird hang poised in the air with rapidly vibrating wings and with beak and tail pointed sharply downwards, while taking aim one appreciates the realization that these birds must’ve had to develop the muscular skills this technique required without having to develop any radical skeletal modifications such as those evolved by the hummingbird. We watch it hover, witness its disappointment, then see it briskly pass on to hover elsewhere.

Apparently the kingfisher’s superbly controlled accurate dive seems to have been developed originally to pluck prey from the ground. It’s always a joy to watch them effortlessly pick up fish swimming just below the surface of the water. It is an act of extraordinary skill performed within a matter of a few seconds, without falter or fumble. The birds that pioneered diving for fish had to learn how to offset their aim to allow for the way that light bends as it enters or leaves water.

An egret ventures perilously close to a slumbering Estuarine Crocodile

There are Collared and Black-capped Kingfishers too. They batter their prey before swallowing them whole. One, having been dispatched from his perch by a rival, swipes his dagger-shaped bill on his new perch to wipe off the frustration or indignity of having been ousted.

Flying low over the coast, a sea eagle comes in to perch on the bare branch of a tall tree, within 10 ft of us. Sea eagles too have huge, powerful beaks. They have impressive wingspans and their big sturdy legs and feet are always bare, with extremely powerful sharp, curved talons. Like most animals, the sea eagle feeds on what it obtains most easily. It may fish for food, steal a meal from another bird, or eat dead fish and other animal remains. 


A dark Changeable Hawk Eagle journeys in with prey in its talons. It is a striking bird and it is my first viewing of the bird in its black morph. It perches on a strong branch to devour his supper. The din of roosting birds peaks as the sun slips below the horizon and suddenly, all is quiet. 


Back at the lodge a theatrical drama awaits us. Put up by the local villagers, it is an energetic, colourful performance. They throw themselves into the act with unreservedness. Their costumes are bold and bright, their make-up carefully done and we enjoy the show thoroughly. The theme is a prayer to the goddess Bonbibi to keep them safe from the tiger. The goddess is much worshipped by locals – especially those whose livelihood depends on wood-collection for fuel from the mangrove forests. Her protection is sought against tiger attacks – several of the villagers had suffered the loss of loved ones or had themselves managed to escape with injuries. The performance is a valiant effort to bring their plight of a marginal existence to the forefront, compelling visitors who come to this small town at the water’s edge to at least participate in their precarious reality by any small measure. There are few inducements for most tourists to come here, so they must do what it takes to optimise the limited traffic.

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