The endless expanse of the Teesta river stretched before me until the horizon. The wind rippled the surface of the water as my guide rowed against the current. Enormous grey clouds loomed above us, with the vast Teesta barrage behind us. I was at Gajoldoba, a hamlet in the Jalpaiguri district of northern West Bengal. The massive Kangchenjunga serves as a backdrop for this picturesque settlement in the Dooars region of the Himalayan foothills. A reservoir formed by the barrage welcomes hundreds of migratory birds every year to the village.
Taposh Mondal, a self-taught birder and local resident who has been guiding tourists at Gajoldoba since 2013, was keen to show me the migratory waterfowl which had lingered past their wintering season. The tide dictated the movement of the birds as they flew to and from the reservoir and river. A flock of lesser whistling ducks were among those reaping the river’s bounty. We could hear the whistles of the pale brown birds assembled on a river island from a distance.
Mondal hushed my attempts to gather trivia about the gregarious ducks when he saw a pair of common shelducks. It was uncommon for these migratory ducks, with prominent red bills, to stay on past the winter, he said. Their striking black and white plumage contrasted sharply with the grey sky reflected in the river.
On our cruise upriver, we saw more ducks: the gadwall, common pochard, ruddy shelduck and northern shoveler. Migratory birds arrive in Gajoldoba from their breeding grounds in Ladakh, Baluchistan, Central Asia, Mongolia, Russia, Siberia and Europe at the onset of winter in the subcontinent. The ducks we saw were the few that had delayed the perilous journey back to their breeding grounds.
The river’s depth wasn’t as impressive as its width. The sedimented water only reached Mondal’s knees when he stepped out to pull his sal wood boat, stuck in a patch of gravel. A pair of migratory crested grebes waltzed nearby. Further ahead, a lone river tern rested on a floating log a few metres away from a flock of brown-headed gulls. The raucous gulls, with their hooded ensembles, flew away as our boat neared.
A small pratincole on a nearby sandbar was more tolerant of our presence. I sighted the well-camouflaged, grey-brown bird eyeing us suspiciously from the sandbar. Other waders, such as the common sandpiper, green sandpiper, little-ringed plover and kentish plover, too were foraging on the sandbar. The shrill call of a river lapwing broke my reverie.
Mondal, who has recorded more than 120 species of birds in Gajoldoba, says birdwatching took off in the area in 2003, when fishers realised they could supplement their income by guiding tourists. In 2016, the West Bengal government declared the 14.09 sq. km reservoir Pakhibitan Wildlife Sanctuary to protect the birds and conserve their habitat. Today, an informal network of fishers and locals ply around 30-odd boats in the reservoir from morning to evening. Though the sanctuary remains open through the year, it sees maximum footfall during the winter months from November-March.
We decided to explore the reservoir the following day to see more birds, while secretly hoping to glimpse an elephant or two stopping by for a drink from the surrounding Baikunthapur forests. A pair of eye-catching pheasant-tailed jacanas, hidden amongst floating vegetation, lit up our morning. Their cousin, a bronze-winged jacana, was foraging nearby. Jacanas are also known as lily-trotters or lotus birds for their ability to walk on floating vegetation with their long, spidery feet.
A skilled boatman, Mondal used his oar deftly to navigate through reedbeds. He knew the reservoir like the back of his hand and called out bird names as soon as he spotted them. Common moorhen, common coot, little grebe, Asian openbill stork, purple heron, purple swamphen, little cormorant, yellow bittern—the sightings came quick and fast. The sheer abundance of these aquatic birds indicated that the wetland was thriving.
We heard the low-pitched buzzing calls of black-breasted weavers as we approached a reed island. Mondal steered the boat right up to the edge of the island, from where I could see the bird’s communal globular nests up close. Supported by reeds tied together, the nests had large circular entrances. The weavers, however, were hidden among the tall reeds.
When the boatman hushed me for the second time in two days, I knew immediately he had spotted another rare species. Three cotton pygmy geese, with their spotless, bright white heads, had sensed the approaching boat. Before we could brace ourselves, they flew over our boat like aeroplanes over a parade.
Back at my cottage, as I observed the unsuccessful hunting attempts of a pied kingfisher, my thoughts circled back to what Mondal had told me when he left me at the jetty: “Visit again in the winter. We will see huge flocks of ducks all around us.”
Anirudh Nair is a feature writer with RoundGlass Sustain, a social impact initiative telling stories of India’s natural world. Read a longer version of the article here.