Wednesday, 29 February 2012


The magenta of Bougainvillea; the gold-yellow of Cassia; the minimalist mauve of Ageratum; the brazen scarlet of Delonix; the salmon and orange combo of Caesalpinia; the graphite grey of a great crested tern’s back; the happy chestnut of a brahminy’s wings; the dull canvas beige of an oriental garden lizard as, tail raised in an exquisite curl, he races away across the hot cement street: these are the colours of Negombo at the end of a leap year’s February.

This list reveals the scope of my ignorance, as if I ever had any doubt of that. In a brackish pool behind the beach, with several green pond frogs, were two species of fish, but what they were is quite beyond my ken.


great crested tern
Sterna bergii


oriental garden lizard
Calotes versicolor

2012 Totals
Mammals: 33
Birds: 340
Reptiles: 6
Amphibians: 3
Fish: 1

One good tern

Early this morning I stroll through the sweaty streets of Negombo, a house crow on every rooftop and three-striped palm-squirrels scurrying along power lines. These are visually all but indistinguishable from their five-striped cousins which I saw in Kolkata, but have a quite different call. Whereas five-striped bicker and scold, three-striped sound precisely like barcode readers in Tesco. Where this growing list of vertebrates is concerned, every little helps.

Brown-headed barbets look and sound very similar to the many lineated barbets I’ve been seeing in Assam but their song is slightly kinder, perhaps less harsh. One hops from the top of a Terminalia tree, chased off by a crow. Along the beach and over the sea are whiskered terns (now splodgy-bellied and pearl-winged as they come into breeding plumage). Far offshore are a brown-headed gull and two much larger terns, no doubt great crested but it’s impossible to be sure. I’ll see one soon enough. Common jezebel butterflies flutter by over the sand and street dogs flop into dejected piles to doze away the day.

Dozing is commonplace here. Sri Lanka seems tropical in the same lazy, big-hearted way as the core of Amazonia, relentlessly green and steamily nocturnal; in this it is quite distinct from the dusty, strait-laced seasonality of north India.

Reaching my guest house I hear the same Asian koel singing as when I left in the relative cool of early morning. The same coucal is here too (some would split this as southern coucal but I’m keeping it as greater) and across the grass hops a family of yellow-billed babblers. Rose-ringed parakeets shout across the town as I write.

Sri Lanka’s first contribution


three-striped palm-squirrel
Funambulus palmarum


brown-headed barbet
Megalaima zeylanica
yellow-billed babbler
Turdoides affinis

2012 Totals
Mammals: 33
Birds: 339
Reptiles: 5
Amphibians: 3
Fish: 1


28th February
Flying from Chennai to Colombo, I am reminded of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey deity, and his celebrated leap across the ocean from South India to Sri Lanka. He had searched the whole of South India for his master Rama’s abducted wife Sita but had failed to find her. Dejected at failing his lord, Hanuman, the deity of devotion and service, resolves to give up life at the southern tip of India rather than return to his master in failure. Spying Hanuman and his followers starving themselves, the crippled old eagle Sampati shuffles over to seize an easy meal. However, although he has lost his wings, his eyesight is still keen and hearing Hanuman’s story of selfless devotion he offers his help. He looks over the ocean to Sri Lanka where he perceives Sita kept captive in a garden by the demon Ravana. Though unaware of his godlike powers, a punishment he received as a baby for annoying the gods with his endless pranks, Hanuman swears to visit Sita with a message of hope or die trying. Summoning all his strength he leaps across the sea and, doing so with pure motives and in a spirit of self-sacrifice, he discovers that as the son of the wind god Vayu he can fly. Sampati flies again too, his wings restored in fulfilment of an ancient prophecy that when he selflessly helps Rama his suffering will see its end.

As my plane lands in Colombo, after too short a journey since I had been upgraded to premiere class, a lift music version of Swan Lake is played, reminding me of another flight, of creativity and beauty: Matthew Bourne’s striking, powerful production which I saw last year with my great friend Rebecca.

A final flight, equally out of place, comes this evening as through the spluttering rain my taxi driver Raja brings me to Negombo. Over his deafening radio is played a bizarre Sinhala version of El Cóndor Pasa, a tune I heard a thousand times Рno exaggeration Рduring my life in Andean Bolivia but hardly expected to hear on Sri Lankan radio. Such are the unlooked for flights of life. Tomorrow feathered flights, I hope, and plots and plans for my fortnight on this teardrop isle.

Two airports, both alike in dignity

28th February

An airport is a life in fastforward. Here in the span of an hour all the stories of our little lives are told, the tearful welcomings home and the never-to-be-seen-again goodbyes. Here all the plays of Shakespeare are compressed, or, more aptly in South India where today’s first flight takes me, all the scowls and postures of kathakali. All the airport’s a stage.

It has occurred to many other travellers to reach Kolkata airport absurdly early, and thus to sidestep the strikes, so much so that the canny authorities usher us into the already crowded arrivals lounge to wait. A beautiful young woman of oriental countenance, no doubt from Manipur, Arunachal or another of the far northeast states, carries in a loop of cloth across her shoulders an equally beautiful boy of eighteen months with a short Mohican of a style only carried off by far eastern faces. Buoyant, youthful colleagues in airline uniforms greet each other with jokes and complex coded handshakes while women soldiers bustle past in khaki combat saris.

Swish, white young India in stylish clothes and shoes reads from its electronic tablets while yards away an older India, wiry slight, moustached and dark of face, hauls suitcases, sweeps floors and sells the tea. All change and no change. Nearby in a secluded corner, devotees of Krsna, east Europeans in uneasy Indian clothes, tell their japa malas and raise their minds to another truth.

Sitting beside me on the tiled floor greying Dutch tourists fart antiphonally, India, in one sense at least, not having agreed with them. Past them sways a severe, bulging matron in a sumptuous sari of royal purple, edged in gold, and gold slippers. A smog of mosquitoes gathers around me and Alan Bennett’s memoirs, through which I am racing in delight, serve a second purpose as a fan to keep them off.

Later, during six hours stalled in Chennai before my flight to Sri Lanka, Bennett keeps me busy, keeps me chortling, the only other distractions being feral pigeons wheeling past and a white-browed wagtail without a tail (making it presumably a white-browed wag) which drops momentarily onto a concrete pillar outside the airport terminal. The wagtail’s scientific name Motacilla maderaspatensis places it firmly at home in the city until recently still known, post-colonially, as Madras.

Much of Bennett’s writing is painfully funny but not suitable for repetition here. Page 301 is particularly good. Reading his chapter on The History Boys, I find myself quietly singing Bewitched from Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart's Pal Joey, which, I’m told, makes a mournful appearance in the film of Bennett’s play. It made its appearance in my life some months ago on a CD from a friend which quickly bored its way into my psyche. The song resurfaces often, as do many favourite tunes as I am blessed with a cerebral iPod. Today Purcell’s Come Ye Sons of Art, Mozart’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah have all come and gone, but Bewitched has been the theme of my day. As of my whole winter.

I’m wild again, beguiled again, a whimpering, simpering child again. Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

From Pal Joey by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart

It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.

Arundhati Roy
The God of Small Things

Today’s new bird


white-browed wagtail
Motacilla maderaspatensis

2012 Totals
Mammals: 32
Birds: 337
Reptiles: 5
Amphibians: 3
Fish: 1

White Palace Hotel

27th February

House swifts flutter and dive over Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose airport as I drop the last of my clients there this evening. With their departure, I move to a modest hotel close to the airport. Hearing the hotel’s name a few days ago, when the booking was made on my behalf by our ground agents in Kolkata, Sujan intoned, ‘It’s a brothel. Out by the airport they all are.’

It looks like one. In fairness it is dazzlingly clean and smells pungently of the many chemicals which are no doubt used to keep it so. Like so many two-and-a-half star Indian hotels, it is decorated in magnificently bad taste, but the people are friendly and I’m well placed for an early start for my flight tomorrow morning.

It turns out it will be a very early start. Tomorrow there is a national strike and if I leave for the airport – five minutes away by road – later than six, I will not make it there for my ten-fifteen flight. Oh India.

There seems to have been a power cut tonight – hardly a headline in India – and twice a thunderous generator has shuddered into life beneath my windows. In the night-dark hiatus between mains power and the generator’s, the twelve brothel lights set into my stuccoed ceiling continue to glow dimly and for a moment I lie beneath an unexpected canopy of stars.

To bed, with Alan Bennett, so to speak. How his Untold Stories and a card in the book with scratchy watercolours of dead bumblebees came into my possession is a story which, now at a safe distance in space, time and emotion, brings me to smile warmly. One of the dead bumblebees is white-tailed Bombus lucorum while another is unmistakably the tree bumblebee Bombus hypnorum, a species which only recently was unknown in Britain and now, tearing north through the country apace, has become so commonplace as to feature in bumblebee art.

I have seen or heard no sign of this being in truth a brothel.


Monday, 27 February 2012

Where I'm found

My good friend Chris in New Jersey sends this photo. It doesn't look quite like this where I am though; in fact here the sun sears the street, a coppersmith barbet taps out his hollow song and, beneath the giant picture window of my imperial room, over the wall from the hotel's flawless gardens, a young man in a checked lungi pees in the litter-laden bushes that line a busy road. Oh India.

Chris also writes with news of mammals seen on offshore research trips: grey seal and minke, humpack and very rare northern right whales. It is in search of whales, pygmy blues among other possibilities, that tomorrow I travel to Sri Lanka. I'll be in touch.

A twitch in time

I don’t think I’ve ever before twitched a rare bird in India. I’ve seen plenty of very rare birds, in many places, but I’ve never specifically gone to a site to look for an individual bird which is rare in the sense of being in the wrong place. I hardly ever twitch in the UK, and then only in my native Norfolk. However, today, having sent off half of my Brahmaputra group on the morning flight, and left with only one of my two stalwart birders, I proposed a twitch to the city of Howrah, across the Hooghly from Kolkata. It would have been rude not to have gone as the bird in question is a drake Baikal teal who, according to my Kolkata birder friends, has spent the winter on a small lake right behind the Satragachi railway station.

Not really knowing where we were heading we hailed a taxi and leapt into the seething lunacy of Kolkata’s streets. As we drove I forged a deal, in my faltering Hindi, with our taxi driver Mukesh, himself also an immigrant from Bihar and therefore a Hindi-speaker. He would wait for us nearby while we watched birds for a couple of hours before bringing us back to our hotel. All I had to do was ring him on his mobile when the twitch was done.

Satragachi Jheel turns out to be a wonderful site, throbbing with lesser whistling-ducks and broadly carpeted at its edges with introduced South American water hyacinths. Across these trotted bronze-winged jacanas and among them slept hundreds more of the little whistling ducks. On flimsy posts in the lake were both little and Indian cormorants, my first for the year, but it was to find a duck that we had come. We found garganey, several in fact, and then a sparkling drake cotton pygmy goose, followed later by several pairs. We found pintail and we found teal. We found gadwall and more garganey. We found a handsome chocolate-hued pair of ferruginous ducks and we found several drake shoveler, still half in eclipse. Then we found more teal. Of Baikal teal we saw nothing.

As a shikra fanned his pearly wings above us, and a bright-eyed small Indian mongoose trotted across the floating mat of water hyacinth poking his tiny nose into all sorts of places he didn’t oughta, we decided we’d dipped the duck and headed back. Still we scanned and, reaching the railway station once more, there he was among the garganey: the crispest, most perfectly-plumaged, best-looking drake Baikal teal in all Kolkata. We were mightily chuffed and, leaving the little palm-squirrels shaking their tails in the trees and the kites swooping at a passing oriental honey-buzzard, we called Mukesh and in two minutes he was with us, beaming his Bihari smile from the front of a friendly yellow cab.

Baikal teal: the last new bird of our Brahmaputra Cruise.

It is the hardest thing in the world to frighten a mongoose, because he is eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity.

Rudyard Kipling
The Jungle Book

New today


Indian cormorant
Phalacrocorax fuscicollis
cotton pygmy goose
Nettapus coromandelianus
Baikal teal
Anas formosa

2012 Totals
Mammals: 32
Birds: 336
Reptiles: 5
Amphibians: 3
Fish: 1

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Fins an’ ‘fibians

26th February

I lie in bed listening to the sounds of a Bengali garden awaking to a new day: a tailorbird chimes cheerily, a spotted dove gives his syncopated purr, and outside my window a dusky warbler tuts disapprovingly at some breach of garden etiquette during the night.

Before breakfast, leaving everyone else to a lie-in on their last morning in the Sunderbans, Apurba, the two birders and I went for a long walk around the village. Here men lug baskets of mud to shore up the bund which holds the tide from swallowing the village; there children smoke their family’s cows with a handful of smouldering rice-straw to keep away mosquitoes. The young shoots of rice blaze green in the tired, dusty landscape of the start of summer and little boys with enormous grins race past along the brick-built path spinning old bicycle tyres with crude sticks. All the while there are purple sunbirds chittering in the trees and Asian pied starlings strutting in gardens and fields.

Of new birds there were three: at the top of a stack of straw sat two Indian silverbills, keeping company with a family of house sparrows. Nearby a subtly beautiful plaintive cuckoo repeatedly dived from its perch in a tree to the furrows of a rice field to pounce on insects. And in a back garden, into which we were welcomed by its owners, a pair of black-headed cuckooshrikes moved slowly through the trees as a black-hooded oriole swooped past and green bee-eaters parachuted across a tank of water.

On our return to camp there were three more new vertebrates: two amphibians and my first identified fish of 2012. A little pond in the garden, which has been almost empty since we arrived, was topped up this morning, causing a flurry of activity among its denizens. The surface was busy with very attractive small fish with misty white stripes through their tails, a black spot on their dorsal fins and a clear white dot on their foreheads. Apurba consulted his nature guru, Kushal Mukherjee, for their identity: they were blue panchax. Occasionally they were disturbed by the swift appearance of athletic Indian bullfrogs. In the main tank, as we waited for lunch, we spotted a wonderful green pond frog, perfectly still among the reeds and grinning beatifically like a Bengali Kermit. After lunch we travelled back to Kolkata, by boat (our very own Joy Ma Kali) and by road.

Embarrassed this evening by the exclusive sophistication of our Kolkata hotel I escaped to the city’s warm, welcoming streets to find something to eat. On my way back I stopped at a tiny stall to buy razors. The stallholder’s assistant spoke to me in Hindi, implying, as would seem likely from his status in life, that he’s an immigrant from Bihar or another of the poorest northern states.

Boy: How many day’s stubble is that?

Nick: Just one.

Boy (with a salesman’s twinkle in his eye): Mate, you’re gonna need more razors than that.

New today


Indian silverbill
Lonchura malabarica
plaintive cuckoo
Cacomantis merulinus
black-headed cuckooshrike
Coracina melanoptera


Indian bullfrog
Hoplobatrachus tigerinus
green pond frog
Euphlyctis hexadactylus


blue panchax
Aplocheilus panchax

2012 Totals
Mammals: 32
Birds: 333
Reptiles: 5
Amphibians: 3
Fish: 1