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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Trip report: Sunderbans National Park, May 2015

Trip Report:        Sunderbans National Park

Dates:                   1-May to 3-May, 2015

Camp:                   Sunderban Jungle Camp on Bali Island

Who:                     VV and KB

Avicennea

Given the time that has passed, I’ll dispense with text and try to capture as much of the experience as possible via the images I can find. It is quite possible that between my patchy notes and patchier memory some errors have crept in.

I should mention that we were guided by a young and very competent naturalist called Animesh Manna who knows his stuff. Mangrove tree identification is a tricky animal for the unseasoned, and Animesh was exceptionally patient in helping us get the hang of it. He is a gifted spotter too and knows his birds.

Pictures are below the descriptions.

Flora

Avicennia marina. “Peara Bayen”. So named because the trunk is reminiscent of the guava tree’s blotchy, peeling trunk. This tree was extremely common.

Avicinnea marina

Rhizophora apiculata. “Garjan”. With its distinctive stilt roots.

Garjan

Garjan pods

Garjan pods 2

Bruguiera gymnorrhiza. “Kankra”. With its buttress roots.

Kankra buttress roots

Excoecaria agallocha. “Genwa”.  Red-leaved at this time of the year. The roots are snake-like with bulbs at the base. The sap is reputed to cause blindness, and the leaves when dried and powdered serve as an effective fish poison.

Keonwa red leaves snake roots bulbs in base

Snakelike roots

Ceriops decandra. “Jhamti/Jale Garan”. Rounded leaves reaching up; broom-like roots. Ceriops tagal – “Math/Jat Garan” has buttressed roots I believe (although my notes describe them as dome shaped for some reason).

Goran upward round leaves broom roots

Suaeda maritima. “Giriya Sak”. A shrub.

Giria shrub

Spiky roots of Kaura/Keora. Sonneratia spp.

Kewr spiky roots

Sonneratia apetala flowers.

Kewra flowers

Kewra yellow flowers

Pneumatophores reach out for air to compensate for the anoxic mud beneath

Garjan pneumatopores possibly

Aerial roots of Avicennia alba. There are three species commonly seen. Avicennia alba, A. marina and A. officinalis. Of these, only A. alba has aerial roots.

Bayan Avicennia aerial roots 2

“Dhundul”, Xylocarpus granatum

Dhundul, Xylocarpus zanata

Fruit of Dhundul

Dhundul, Xylocarpus zanata

Tiger palm. Phoenix palludosa. “Hental/Bogra”. Fairly plentiful.

Tiger palm phoenix palludosa 4

Nypa fruticans. The Nypa palm. “Golpata”. Having seen pictures of large barges laboring under tons of fronds, it came as a surprise that this palm was sparingly seen. Turns out the large clusters are evidently all on the Bangladesh side.

Nypa palm

Fruit of Heritiera fomes. The “Sundari”. The tree for which the place is named. Another big surprise. Much of this occurs on the Bangladesh side. The few isolated specimens seen along the banks were slender and sickly looking.

Sundari flowers

Aegiceras corniculatum. “Khalsi/Kholsi”. Typically seen leaning over the water’s edge. Bulk of the nectar that goes into making the famed honey that the Sunderbans produces is drawn from the flower of this tree.

Kholsi lean over water

Kholsi flowers most honey prod

Porteresia coarctata. “Dhani ghas”, Mangrove grass or Paddy grass.

Paddy grass or Mangrove grass

Imperata cylindrical. Spear grass. I hope the identification was accurate.

Spear grass

Fauna

There was reasonable variety of avifauna. Collared kingfishers were commonly met with and their calls heard even more frequently. We saw the brown-winged kingfisher a few times. We heard the calls of the Mangrove pitta at the Sajnekhali watchtower many times, but didn’t catch sight of the bird. We thought we heard the Mangrove whistler once, but certainly did not see one. We also saw orange-breasted green pigeons at the same watchtower. The Pacific golden plover, Whimbrel and the Changeable hawk eagle (dark morph) were three other candidates on our list that we did get to see.

We were aware that chances of seeing either a tiger or a fishing cat were slim. Or the King cobra for that matter. We did want to see salties and saw just one individual. It would have been nice to see one of the dolphin species, but they are not easy to come by.

Large egret patrolling the shallows

Large egret

Lesser adjutant stork.

Lesser Adjutant

Whimbrel takes flight.

Whimbrel 3

Common kingfisher

Common kingfisher

Red fiddler crabs

Fiddler crab3

Fiddler crab 4

Water monitors. We were eager to sight these creatures after reading about 9-foot long individuals gracing the place.

Monitor 2

Monitor 5

Salty! Poor shot of an Estuarine croc lying inert in the shade. These reptiles have the horrendous reputation of savaging people shrimping or crabbing in the shallows.

Estuarine croc

Mudskipper.

Mudskipper

Others

This is the standard configuration of tourist boats in the Sunderbans. A viewing deck on top; Beds, toilet and a galley below. The structure perched at the stern is an additional loo, for the crew presumably.

Boat

The Sajnekhali watchtower, where so many spectacular sightings happen. We heard a tiger call while there, but saw nothing.

Sajnekhali watchtower

The canopy walk around the Dobanki watchtower, surrounded by a sea of Avicennia marina in the main.

Dobaki watchtower

A little shrine to Bon Bibi, the goddess of Sunderbans legend. Honey and crab collectors fervently believe in her promise to protect anyone who steps into her realm unarmed and pure-of-heart. A necessary reassurance in a land where you take your life in your hands each time you step into the forest.

Bon bibi

The riversides along forest stretches that lie across habited areas are strung with rather flimsy-looking nylon nets, ostensibly to prevent tigers from swimming across. Apart from the tiger and the saltie, Black-tipped sharks are a danger to people in shallow waters – they evidently sneak up and bite a chunk of flesh off the calves, leaving the person bleeding dangerously before medical help can be reached.

Net

Tiger crossover, sometime that morning. We found the spoor on both banks and waited awhile in vain.

Pugmark

Ship laden with flyash crossing the vast Panchmukhani confluence, headed for Khulna in Bangladesh

Ships at Panchmukhani headed Khulna Bdesh flyash

So that’s what a Patton tank looks like. Someone has a sense of humor.

Patton tank

Birds

  1. Adjutant stork
  2. Ashy woodswallow
  3. Black bittern
  4. Black-headed cuckooshrike
  5. Black-hooded oriole
  6. Black-naped monarch
  7. Brahminy kite
  8. Bronzed drongo
  9. Brown shrike
  10. Brown-winged kingfisher
  11. Changeable hawk eagle (dark morph)
  12. Chestnut-tailed starling
  13. Collared kingfisher
  14. Common iora
  15. Common kingfisher
  16. Common myna
  17. Common sandpiper
  18. Eurasian collared dove
  19. Fulvous-breasted woodpecker
  20. Greater coucal
  21. Large cuckoo-shrike
  22. Large egret
  23. Lesser flameback (calls)
  24. Lesser whistling duck
  25. Lesser yellow-nape
  26. Little cormorant
  27. Little egret
  28. Loten’s sunbird
  29. Magpie robin
  30. Mangrove pitta (calls)
  31. Orange-breasted green pigeon
  32. Oriental honey buzzard
  33. Oriental white-eye
  34. Pacific golden plover
  35. Pied kingfisher
  36. Pied myna
  37. Pin-striped tit babbler (calls)
  38. Pond heron
  39. Purple-rumped sunbird
  40. Red junglefowl
  41. Red-whiskered bulbul
  42. Rose-ringed parakeet
  43. Scarlet-backed flowerpecker
  44. Short-toed snake eagle
  45. Small minivet
  46. Spotted dove
  47. Spotted owlet (calls)
  48. Stork-billed kingfisher
  49. Streak-throated woodpecker
  50. Tailorbird
  51. Whimbrel
  52. White-breasted waterhen
  53. White-throated kingfisher

Mammals

  1. Chital
  2. Rhesus macaque
  3. Wild boar

Reptiles

  1. Checkered keelback
  2. Estuarine crocodile
  3. Water monitor