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.
The Jungle Book
cotton pygmy goose