Trip Report: Sunderbans, Dec 2015

Dates:                   16-19 Dec, 2015

Camp:                   Sunderban Jungle Camp on Bali Island

Who:                     VV, GK and my 8-year-old son P

A couple of near-miss-sightings of mama last time pushed us to try our luck again. And the prospect of winter birding.

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Blue tiger

Getting to Sunderbans jungle camp involves a three hour drive along poor, narrow roads from Kolkata, to cover less than 100 kms to Godkhali. From here, the boat is boarded, and it winds its way up the Durgaduani channel and to the Gumdi river on the banks of which the camp is sited, on Bali island. On the way back, Animesh brought us around Bali island the long way, up the Bidya river, to look for waders.

The weather was strange. Day 1 was hot and sunny and we scrambled for whatever scanty shade was available on the upper deck. Day 2 was freezing cold, especially when the boat faced north – owing to the uttore batash – northern wind – that chilled us to the bone. Day 3 was equally cold but with persistent rain, forcing us to seek the shelter of the lower deck at least once. Day 4 was moderately cool with some sunshine. Someone joked that we’d experienced three seasons all in one trip.

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The forest looked freshly washed and hauntingly beautiful after the rain

Animesh Manna was his usual competent, thorough self, and we got a boatman with unbelievable spotting skills this time – Mahadev.

Most days we got back early, by 5 or 5:30 PM, giving us a little daylight before the early sunset to wander around the embankment by the camp. A Taiga flycatcher was a regular habitue around the harvested rice paddies and fish ponds that chequer the countryside. Yellow-browed warblers were ubiquitous, here and in the forest. A brood of spotted owlets was resident.

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Common kingfisher

We watched a pair of checkered keelbacks hunting among the reeds of one of the fish ponds. Animesh unearthed a little rat snake while looking for bitterns and we took some pictures.

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Rat snake

While walking by another pond, GK and I startled a snake by nearly stepping on it, sending it darting away and into the water. Dark green in colour and over a couple of feet in length. Animesh was a short way away but surmised that it was either an Olive keelback (which is what I had thought) or a Smooth-scaled watersnake.

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Mudskipper

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Slug leaving a clay-pellet trail

On the last day, we did a little country-boat ride up one of the narrow channels nearby. The nearby village was hidden behind a wall of mangrove vegetation, giving us an idea of what a small-boat ride in the forest would feel like. Considering the stories one heard in the Sunderbans of tiger attacks, sitting low down in the water with the banks a couple of feet away on both sides brought home the vulnerability of crab fishermen who sneak into the forest channels. Our boatman was a chap who’d survived an incredible run-in with a tiger. This had happened just two months before our last visit and we’d met him then too. He was still recovering from the shock of the incident apparently.

The story went like this. This fellow, along with a couple of friends ventured into a channel across the Gumdi, in the forest. The trio spotted a tiger a short distance away and one of them panicked and slipped off the boat. The cat pounced on the man in a trice and disappeared with him into the mangroves. The third man collapsed in a state of panic but our friend brought the boat around and stepped into the jungle alone and on foot, armed with just his paddle. Running into the tiger he charged it with the paddle, and it dropped the dead man and disappeared. He then hauled the body back to the village. And gave up illegal crab fishing ever since.

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One of the five “fingers” that radiate from the Sudanykhali watchtower. This tower was the one I meant in my last post when I mistakenly referred to the Sajnekhali watchtower producing great sightings.

In the forest we found a set of birds that were almost completely different from the ones we encountered the last time.

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Lesser whistling ducks

Black-capped kingfisher were commonplace and their calls, reminiscent of the White-throated kingfisher’s were frequently heard.

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Vacated nest of Purple-rumped sunbird showing the curtained hatch

Common sandpipers were found along the banks almost everywhere, and their whistling calls were a constant too.

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Common sandpiper

Magpie robin, Yellow-browed warbler, Collared dove and tailorbird called incessantly. Dusky warbler called occasionally.  Great and little egret, Jungle crow and Little heron were commonly seen.

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Little heron

The collared kingfisher that was so common in May was missing this time, and we only saw a couple.

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Collared kingfisher

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Common redshank

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Red junglefowl

Brown-winged kingfisher were seen far more frequently than the last time.

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Brown-winged kingfisher

The Mangrove pitta, which was heard quite a bit around Sudhanykhali watchtower the last time was silent at this time of year. The dark morph CHE had not been seen for a while around Sudhanykhali.

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Lesser sand plover and tiger pugmarks

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Water monitor – we anchored the boat to have lunch in this lizard’s company, but he had other ideas and promptly disappeared

Animesh helped me improve on my ability to identify mangrove trees further.

  • Avicennia alba – Kalu bayan – with its black trunk and sharp, narrow leaves
  • Avicennia officinalis – Jath bayan – easiest of the genus to identify, with its smooth pale bark, rounded leaves and distinct branching structure

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Avicennia officinalis showing profusion of aerial roots

  • Avicennia marina – Peara bayan – with its mango-like leaves and pale blotchy trunk very much like the guava tree’s
  • Ceriops tagal – Moth goran – with its dome-like shape and knee-roots

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Knee roots of Ceriops tagal

  • Bruguiera gymnorrhiza – Kankra – with its buttress roots and distinct leaves

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Red flowers of Kankra (Bruguiera gymnorrhiza)

  • Heritiera fomes – Sundari – with its Christmas-tree-like structure and branching pattern
  • Sonneratia apetala – Kewra – with its pencil roots
  • Xylocarpus granatum – Dhundul – with its melon-like fruit

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Xylocarpus granatum fruit

  • Xylocarpus mekongensis – Passur – with its thick pneumatophores

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Pneumatophores of Passur (Xylocarpus mekongensis)

Jhamti goran Ceriops decandra, Garjan Rhozophora apiculate and Kholsi Aegiceras corniculatum are not too difficult to ID in general.

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Garjan (Rhizophora apiculata) showing stilt roots

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Kholsi (Aegiceras corniculatum)

GK carried home a Kankra Bruguiera gymnorrhiza sapling and a red water lily. The latter will probably survive, but it will be interesting to see how the mangrove tree copes in Chennai.

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The lighter green patch is mistletoe – a hemiparasite

The issue with the Sunderbans is that while tiger sightings are rare, near-misses are not – and this always leaves a tantalizing window open for a repeat visit. We were at Sudhanykhali watchtower at 8:30 AM one morning and after we left, at 9:30 AM, a big male tiger walked right passed the watchtower and crossed the channel. It is this sort of thing that tempts us to return for yet another attempt.

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Birds

  1. Ashy woodswallow
  2. Black-winged cuckooshrike
  3. Brahminy kite
  4. Brown-winged kingfisher
  5. Black-capped kingfisher
  6. Bronzed drongo
  7. Brown shrike
  8. Cinereous tit
  9. Common iora
  10. Common myna
  11. Common redshank
  12. Common sandpiper
  13. Common tailorbird
  14. Dusky warbler
  15. Eurasian collared dove
  16. Eurasian wigeon
  17. Eurasian wryneck (VV only)
  18. Gadwall
  19. Great egret
  20. Green bee-eater
  21. Grey junglefowl
  22. Grey wagtail
  23. Indian spotted eagle
  24. Indian treepie
  25. Jungle babbler
  26. Jungle crow
  27. Lesser flameback
  28. Lesser sand plover
  29. Lesser whistling duck
  30. Little egret
  31. Little heron
  32. Magpie robin
  33. Night heron
  34. Oriental white-eye
  35. Osprey
  36. Pied kingfisher
  37. Pin-striped tit babbler (calls)
  38. Pond heron
  39. Purple-rumped sunbird
  40. Rose-ringed parakeet
  41. Shikra
  42. Small minivet
  43. Spotted dove
  44. Spotted owlet
  45. Taiga flycatcher
  46. Terek sandpiper
  47. Tickell’s blue flycatcher
  48. Whimbrel
  49. White-breasted waterhen
  50. White-throated fantail
  51. White-throated kingfisher
  52. Yellow-browed warbler

Mammals

  1. Chital
  2. Rhesus macaque
  3. Wild boar

Reptiles

  1. Checkered keelback
  2. Estuarine crocodile
  3. Rat snake
  4. Water monitor
  5. Olive keelback?
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5 thoughts on “Trip Report: Sunderbans, Dec 2015

  1. koeldas says:

    Wow at this rate you will be spouting Bengali. So you did not meet the mama 🙂

    • Badri says:

      Just heard someone watched a tiger for 4.5 hours yesterday Koel. But tigers aside, it is a magical place. Bengali – I wish, if it weren’t for my poor language learning capability, I’d give it a go. I did make an attempt once many years back – to learn Bengali – but gave it up.

      • koeldas says:

        If you know Hindi then Bengali is usually easy to pick up. Most of the words originate from Sanskrit and there are few foreign influences too.

      • Badri says:

        …additionally there isn’t the gender confusion that non-Hindi-speakers struggle with. Inanimate objects are “it”. Not he or she. 🙂

  2. koeldas says:

    Thankfully yes. The sole reason for why I opted for Sanskrit and not Hindi as a third language at school. I don’t remember most of it though unfrotunately

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