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Tagore’s Kajolpakhi kin takes a bow

Welcome to an oriental puzzle. Two birds, of a species so far found only in Japan and the Far East, have somehow managed to make their way to Calcutta. The pair was spotted by a couple of bird-watchers, in the first-ever recorded sighting in India. International experts contacted by the duo confirmed that the birds spotted on a summer morning in Narendrapur were the Japanese red-backed shrike.

Sumit K. Sen, a banker, and Sujan Chatterjee, a businessman, were catapulted into history books by being in the right place at the right time. The day was May 4, the time about 10.30 am, when the duo chanced upon and clicked the exotic visitors, who appeared to be quite different from the common brown shrike. Dubbed kajolpakhi by Rabindranath Tagore because of a streak of black on its eyes, the shrike, slightly smaller than the common mynah, is also called the ‘butcher bird’ for its habit of impaling live insects and reptiles on thorns, creating a sort of larder for itself.

Last Sunday, the Bombay Natural History Society, foremost authority in listing India’s bird species, sent them an e-mail. “Congratulations for this wonderful addition to India’s list, your photographs were superb,” wrote Society director Asad Rahmani. It took the pair close to seven months to unravel what sub-species of the shrike they had seen. “None of the Indian field guides matched the description of the birds, making identification difficult,” Sen said. Interestingly, the birds were spotted in the height of summer, when even the visiting brown shrikes fly north.

In August, when the brown shrikes began arriving, Sen and Chatterjee again took photographs and compared them with their snaps of the mystery birds. “We were sure the two were not the same sub-species and when we looked in a book of birds of South-East Asia, our photos matched that of the red-backed shrike,” Sen said. They sent the photographs to Norbert Lefranc, author of A Guide to the Shrikes of the World, and to Craig Robson, author of Birds of South-East Asia. The two experts examined the photographs, comparing them with the records they possessed.

Lefranc mailed back (to Sen’s website kolkatabirds.com): “I have examined the photos, the... colours on the upper parts as well as on the under parts, and the wide frontal patch all strongly suggest Lanius cristatus superciliosus,” (the scientific name for the Japanese red-backed shrike). “As far as I know, this could be the first record for India.” In Robson’s opinion: “It certainly looks like a superciliosus to me and also matches the description in ‘Shrikes’. This race breeds in Japan… The furthest west that it seems to have been recorded to date is south Thailand and Sumatra.” Sen and Chatterjee are on a new search as to why the red-backed shrike has moved as far west as India. And for Indian bird-lovers, it has added one more species to the country’s winged wonders.

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