West Bengal

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Wetland area symbol © Sumit Sen
                    Birds and birding: East coast of India


© Sumit Sen

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Introduction: The West Bengal coast stretches along the Bay of Bengal for 170 kilometers from east to west. The eastern boundary (21° 40.849'N) borders Bangladesh and the western boundary is near Digha (21° 37.012'N) on the state border with Orissa. The Hugli (or Hoogly) River, a channel of the River Ganges and the Subarnarekha meet the ocean at this funnel-shaped major estuary of the Ganges and a good number of very large tidal rivers like Thakuran, Maltla, Raimangal, etc flow down the delta weaving their channels through a multitude of islands. Many small sandy islands and mudflats mark the river channels and the coast and most of them get completely inundated during high tide. Much of the western part of the coast is now inhabited and cultivated. Industry and tourism has established a strong presence in the area between the Subarnarekha river on the west and the Hugli in the east. Parts of the forested area around the Thakuran River are protected and retain their natural mangrove habitat and the area east of the Thakuran falls under the core area of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve - an area where no access is generally allowed to casual bird-watchers or tourists.

The beaches: The low-lying, mesotidal tropical coast in these parts is generally characterized by a flat inter-tidal foreshore and a gently sloping gradient towards the sea. In general the beaches have a east-west extension of variable width with a 50-60m wide backshore demarcated by sand dunes and a 500m foreshore which is tidally influenced.
The beaches here are generally hard with a mix of medium to fine sand. Large amounts of sediments flowing down the Hugli and the Subarnarekha deposit mud on the beaches creating estuarine mudflats and sand bars at many places. The delta is marked by a large number of tidal bars, tidal islands, beaches, mudflats, sand-flats, coastal dunes, creeks, inlets and mangrove swamps.

Background: The large variety of habitats comprising of dense mangrove forests, muddy creeks and channels, sandy beaches and intertidal mudflats hosts a good mix of wintering waders and other water birds. Very little study of the area has been done in the past due to inaccessibility and resultantly little is known about the birds of these coasts. With the improvement of infrastructure and more birders willing to travel it is now possible to visit the area in winter and some work in this direction has already been started by the members of the Bengalbird google forum. This supplements earlier field work by members of Prakriti Samsad and, more recently, by the Wader Study Group (see Reference1 below).
Our effort will be to continue the fieldwork and attempt to understand the significance of the West Bengal coast as a hosting site for key waterbird populations. There is already evidence that migrants arriving here are not just trans-Siberian but also those that use the
East Asian-Australasian Flyway (more here). There are also indications that many species use this coast as a 'staging area' for onward journeys further south. These and other observations require greater study and understanding.

Purpose: This section introduces the area and lists the bird species that have been observed here. It is meant to facilitate birding on the coast and help the process of accumulating information. It also introduces a new winter birding hotspot - Henrys Island. The author would welcome more information the birds of West Bengal coast and can be reached at sumitsen@rediffmail.com. Contributions will be acknowledged.

Birds: Surveys since 2000 have recorded about 120 bird species on the coast. The most evident and abundant wintering waterbird species are Little Terns and Greater Sand Plovers. Large concentrations of other species like Small Pratincoles, Ruff, Pallas's Gull, Common Terns, Godwits etc are not regular through the winter indicating passage movements. Many species are found spread out in small numbers and can often be strays. These include Asian Dowitcher, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Red Knot and Heuglin's (or Steppe) Gulls.

© Sumit Sen
Turnstones and Great Knots, Henrys Island

The area is a known breeding site for Little Terns and Great-crested Terns. Black Noddies are known to occur and a Lesser Frigatebird has been recovered inland suggesting movement on the coast. As a general rule flock sizes are not large and high tide concentrations of mixed species can add up to 300-500 birds at most key sites.

Resident raptors include White-bellied Sea Eagles and rare records of Booted Eagle, butep Buzzard, Eurasian Hobby and Amur Falcons indicate passage movement. A variety of kingfishers are to be found and include Black-capped and Collared. Stray sightings of Dollarbird and Chestnut-winged Cuckoo are suggestive of greater off-shore diversity than what has been recorded from the limited visits. Full list here.

Sites: Much of the coast has been developed for tourism and infrastructure for overnighting exists almost through the entire stretch. Accessibility has improved with good approach roads and it is possible to reach most destinations in 4 to 5 hours by road. Public transport in the shape of State run long distance buses and trains are also available and motorized country boats can be locally hired for visits to outlying islands. While it is possible to do same day trips from Kolkata to most of these destinations, it is recommended that al least one night be spent at location.

1. Digha / Shankarpur/ Mandarmoni/ Junput: This area lies between the Subranarekha river on the border with Orissa and the Hugli River. Developed as a tourist destination, the sector attracts large holiday crowds and bird life is generally sparse though the Junput area holds promise.

2. Sagar Island / Herobhanga or Haribhanga Island: Sagar is a large island on the mouth of the Hugli and offers good habitat for a variety of waterbirds on its long and varied coastline. Herobhanga is an isloated and seasonally inhabited sandy island off the coast of Sagar island. It offers safe roosting for large numbers of waders and seabirds.

3. Bakkhali / Frazerganj / Henrys Island / Jambu Island: Bakkhali is a little visited beach resort about 80 kilometers due south of Kolkata. It the last inhabited island on the eastern sea face till the border with Bangladesh. Frazerganj and Bakkhali are connected on the coast and the almost uninhabited Henrys Island lies to the east of Bakkhali and is separated by a wide, deep and muddy creek. Protected Jambu Island lies off the Frazerganj coast and is uninhabited. Boats from Frazerganj jetty do round tours of the island.

4. Kalash Island:

© Sumit Sen

Kalash Island, in South 24 Parganas, is a part of Sundarbans National Park and lies at the estuary of the River Matla. This is tiger country. But being outside the core area, visitors with armed guards are permitted to get down on the beach. Access by boat to this wide beach is usually from the Forest Department's Kalash Camp which is upriver. Kalash has most of the coastal birds and is a specially good place to find uncommon waders. Great Thick-knees are a feature on the beach. A visit to Kalash combines the Sundarbans experience with bird-watching.

Tropical humid climate dominated by NE & SW monsoons. Annual average rainfall varies between 1900mm to 2400mm. Winter lows 140C, Summer highs 340C

References / Further reading:
1.Wader Study Group Bulletin 108 December 2005: The Indian Sunderbans: an important wintering site for Siberian waders by C. ZÖCKLER and others.
2. Bengalbird Google Group reports
3. International Conference on Estuaries and Coasts, November, 2003. Article by A K Bhattacharya and others
4. Wikitravel
5. The Telegraph story on Henrys Island

Travel Help: Help Tourism at www.helptourism.com

Sumit K Sen
Kolkata, India


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