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

Birds

331
Indian silverbill
Lonchura malabarica
332
plaintive cuckoo
Cacomantis merulinus
333
black-headed cuckooshrike
Coracina melanoptera

Amphibians

2
Indian bullfrog
Hoplobatrachus tigerinus
3
green pond frog
Euphlyctis hexadactylus

Fish

1
blue panchax
Aplocheilus panchax

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

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