Not all interesting creatures are vertebrates (not by far!) and this morning’s highlights, for me, were the many cherry-red and startling blue Uca fiddler crabs we saw on the low-tide mud in the Dobanki area of the park. At Dobanki park authorities are engaged in a release scheme for chital, which to my mind is highly misguided. As far as anyone can explain to me, chital are brought from other Bengali parks to replenish dwindling stocks of food for the tiger. You may take it was read that I am wholly in favour of all-out tiger conservation; however, I cannot see how working against the ecology of the park, by shipping in hapless chital from kinder environments, can do anything to solve the deer's decline in the long term. Would it not be better to explore the possibility of restoring a flow of freshwater to the park, in order to promote conditions in which healthy stocks of the tiger’s prey were naturally available?
At the chital release site we saw both captive deer and others recently released to meet their feline nemesis and, across the channel, we heard a chital give, several times, its alarm call. Tigers were around us at least; and why wouldn’t they be when semi-tame, dumb deer from elsewhere are being shipped in to feed them? Here too we saw a female black redstart (my last was a male on the roof of a terminal of Charles de Gaulle Airport, en route last October to Madagascar), a greenish warbler, a singing male purple sunbird (glorious) and a crowing cock junglefowl.
Later on our way back to Bali island we had the briefest of encounters with a dolphin, but tigers came there none, save the many striped tiger butterflies which fluttered cheerily across the path of our boat Joy Ma Kali.
At lunch I gained a retrospective, and very unsatisfactory, new bird for my list. Reading my book on my doorstep yesterday, during the after-lunch siesta (a miracle unheard of on most tours), I spotted a bird some distance away on the ground and guessed it must be a wryneck. I hopped inside for my binoculars but on my return it had gone. Today at lunch our wonderful naturalist Apurba called out that he had seen a wryneck but again it had gone by the time we reached him. Nonetheless, now I’m happy that my visitor yesterday was a wryneck. Perhaps I’ll see another in the dunes at Holme in September or on a visit to my friends the wardens on Blakeney Point.
For this afternoon’s adventure we sailed to an island which, at around thirty years of age, is considered new. A thick growth of young mangroves is developing but, unlike many of the other islands, it still has mudflats around it and is therefore very popular with waders. Seeing these flighty birds proved tricky and we never really saw them very well, but as soon as we arrived three hyperactive terek sandpipers hurtled away across the melted-Bournville mud. Nearby was a big posse of plovers, largely hidden among young mangrove stalks. We could see they were sandplovers and we could see that with them were two smaller plovers but, in both cases, which? Straining our eyes we could just about convince ourselves that the little jobs were Kentish and we managed to cobble together enough evidence that the sandplovers were lesser. As they flew off in a tight flock they gave a sharp call, whereas greater purrs by comparison. Apurba took a photo which, much enlarged, showed at least one strongly suggestive feature, and in any case he was confident that lesser hugely outnumbers greater here. Lesser they were.
Apurba is a gentle-mannered, thoughtful Bengali man with a huge knowledge of the Sunderbans, their wildlife, landscape and culture. It is a delight to work with him and learn from his modest but sagacious interpretation of the delta. He has been coming here frequently since 1994 and tells the sad tale of the decline of many species. When first he came, he and his colleagues would watch evening flights of three or four-hundred whimbrel, where now these birds are to be seen only in ones and twos, their mudflat habitat having largely disappeared. Equally, fifteen years ago, fish were readily caught and were cheap, while now fishermen struggle to make a living from poor catches and prices have risen. His story is of a dying delta. I hope it is not so.
With him on our boat, Joy Ma Kali (Victory to Mother Kali), are the helmsman Mahadev (Great God, a name of Lord Siva) and his deck-hand Bapi, both from the village on Bali island where our camp is located. Mahadev is not only a highly respected boatman, he is also an astonishing naturalist, seeing and identifying countless species at barely credible distance, with the naked eye or with a dilapidated pair of binoculars. Bapi, by contrast, is young, only eighteen and, as I was told by one of his colleagues with a smile, had his first shave last week. Despite this, since the death of his father, he is obliged to work, forgoing whatever education is available to him here, to support his mother and siblings. On the boat he scrubs the deck, casts the anchor, ties the ropes, tests the depths with a mighty bamboo pole and makes the tea. Nervously he also smiles a delightful smile and this evening, as we visited the jetty to see the bioluminescent Noctiluca dinoflagellates in the water, he rushed, amazed, from the boat to see a laser pointer with which one of my clients was pointing out the stars.
This evening, before dinner and before Noctiluca, as we walked back to camp a large-tailed nightjar sang abruptly from an island across the great channel of saltwater and Indian bullfrogs drilled out their loud song from the village tanks.
But there are rules to this list and species which are only heard don’t make it. No exceptions.
Brown eyes observe us as we pass. Confronted with the pain of Asia, one cannot look and cannot turn away. In India, human misery seems so pervasive that one takes in only stray details: a warped leg or a dead eye, a sick pariah dog eating withered grass, an ancient woman lifting her sari to move her shrunken bowels by the road. Yet in Varanasi there is hope of life that has been abandoned in such cities as Calcutta, which seems resigned to the dead and dying in its gutters. Shiva dances in the spicy foods, in the exhilarated bells of the swarming bicycles, the angry bus horns, the chatter of the temple monkeys, the vermilion tikka dot on the women’s foreheads, even in the scent of charred human flesh that pervades the ghats. The people smile – that is the greatest miracle of all. In the heat and stench and shriek of Varanasi, where in fiery sunrise swallows fly like departing spirits over the vast silent river, one delights in the smile of a blind girl being led, of a Hindu gentleman in white turban gazing benignly at the bus driver who reviles him, of a flute-playing beggar boy, of a slow old woman pouring holy water from the Ganga, the River, onto a stone elephant daubed in red.
The Snow Leopard
Today’s newcomers (all of which may, more or less occasionally, be seen in the UK)