Cities are typically considered to be centres of intensive human activity—the very antithesis of what a nature lover would strive for. However, even in and around our busiest cities exist a few precious patches of biodiversity. This is true even for a super-congested megalopolis such as Kolkata, where as many as 14 million people dwell in the city and its suburbs. Inspite of the inexorable growth of fringe neighbourhoods, a number of tiny green patches, which host a surprising amount of biodiversity, continue to exist. The city and its suburbs would be a much poorer place without them.
Santragachhi Jheel ( Jheel means “lake” in Bengali) is one such biodiverse location. Located in the municipality of Howrah -Kolkata’s twin city- the lake is easily accessible for Kolkatans, being located only 8 km from the city centre. The lake plays host to large numbers of waterfowl in winter. These belong to many species-some of which are local migrants, whereas others come from distant Europe, North America and Russia. In addition, several exciting year-round residents are commonly met with.
On the 20th of December 2015, an opportunity to accompany Kolkata-based NGO Naturemates on a birdwatching tour to Santragachhi Jheel arose. The lake is situated right beside the railway station, and is sandwiched between it and several densely populated residential localities and a railway engineering yard. There is little green cover surrounding the Jheel, which itself is owned by Indian Railways. At 1.375 lakh square feet, it is not exceptionally large, but there are several small islands of vegetation which host thousands of waterfowl.
As soon as we entered a small tree-sheltered compound which has been created specifically to allow birders to watch waterfowl at close quarters, we came across a large flock of Lesser Whistling Teals on an island barely 50 feet away. Soon, we began coming across huge flocks of these ducks, which are the dominant species of the Jheel. These noisy waterfowl breed in India, but undertake local migrations in winter.
Shubhankar Patra of Naturemates has estimated that atleast 4000 of these medium-sized ducks are inhabiting the Jheel at present. In addition, we came across smaller numbers of Gadwalls, Northern Pintails, Ferruginous Pochards (considered to be “Near Threatened” by the IUCN) and Common Teals. These species breed in distant countries -mostly in the upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere -and cross large distances to reach the same wintering sites year after year.
The Naturemates team, which featured accomplished naturalists such as Patra and Animesh Manna, were able to identify the various species effortlessly. Among the highlights of the trip was the sighting of the cryptic Swinhoe’s Snipe, another winter migrant which could hardly be made out among the similarly coloured vegetation!!!
Another was the sighting of an interesting-looking Gadwall which had a chestnut head, similar to that of a Lesser Whistling Teal’s!!! Beyond these Gadwalls were swimming several Common Teals, another rare winter visitor which was unknown to the Jheel till a few years ago.
A birdwatching trip to Santragachhi is not all about the sighting of aquatic birds-several interesting species of passerines can also be found flitting about in the few trees bordering the lake. Among the ones we saw were winter visitors such as the Blyth’s Reed Warbler and the Taiga Flycatcher. It was indeed a great experience to accompany birdwatchers who were capable of distinguishing the various species of warblers merely by listening to their calls!!!
Overall, 69 species were observed during the day-long trip. Year-round residents such as Bronze-Winged and Pheasant-tailed jacanas, Shikras and Common moorhens were also met with. It is indeed nothing short of a miracle that a small lake located in the midst of overbearing humanity continues to host so many exciting species!!!
The long-term viability of this natural marvel is, however, in doubt. This year, a large portion of the lake has been taken over by water hyacinth, an invasive species which is notorious for choking to death entire ecosystems. The water hyacinth-dominated areas are naturally not inhabited by waterfowl. Moreover, a significant amount of garbage continues to be dumped into the lake.
Local pride regarding its fame unfortunately doesn’t translate into a concerted anti-garbage effort. We saw several ducks swimming amidst plastic bottles and paper plates. Large sections of the lake were horribly discoloured. In addition, noise and air pollution levels are very high-as can be expected in a place where the rumbling of passing trains, the honking of autorickshaw horns and the bellowing of heavy machinery drowns out the whistles of innumerable teals. At the end of a rewarding day of birding, we were left pondering about the Jheel’s long-term viability.
Santragachhi Jheel is one of the last remnants of the great wetlands which once dotted South Bengal. Its loss would be a huge blow to Howrah and Kolkata, for beneath the dusty veneer of these megalopolises lies a beating heart which is made up of ecosystems like the Jheel. One hopes that initiatives like Naturemates will continue to bring together the city’s wildlife lovers to explore and protect biodiverse areas like these.
An exhaustive checklist of the birds seen, as created by the Naturemates team
1. Lesser Whistling Teal.
2.Cotton Pygmy Gose
7.Indian Pond Heron
9.Black-crowned Night Heron
10. Cattle Egret
13. Oriental Darter
18. White-breasted Waterhen
24.Eurasian Collared Dove
26.Yelow-footed Green Pigeon
28.Common Hawk Cuckoo
32.Asian Palm Swift
37. Lineated Barbet
44.Indian Golden Oriole
48.Eastern Jungle Crow
51.Red vented Bulbul
52.Red whiskered Bulbul
55.Blyth’s Reed Warbler
60.Asian Pied Starling
62. Oriental Magpie Robin
A massive thanks to Mr Subhankar Patra and the Naturemates team for their guidance. Pic credits : Aditya Banerjee, Subhanwita Basak and Soumya Banerjee.