Radhanath Polley was 56, bored and couldn’t tell a munia from a minivet when a visitor with a pair of binoculars arrived one afternoon to open a window to a world he didn’t know existed.
A decade later, “Radhanathda” is the Calcutta birding community’s most reliable one-man resource on bird sightings on the northern fringes of the city.
“Walk, find, see and observe,” the visitor had told the former Hindustan Motors employee that afternoon in 2003.
Polley hasn’t stopped walking since. “There are a few crore trees and I know only 500 at the most,” he says. “And I am not even putting a number to the birds perched on those trees!”
Unlike many amateurs who bring out their binoculars and big lenses in winter, birding is an everyday obsession for Polley. Four hours every morning are devoted to trawling the fields and keeping vigil on the water bodies within 200sq km of his home in Hooghly’s Raghunathpur. He is also a frequent visitor to Boshipota and Joypur Bill in Howrah district.
It helps that Polley, a widower with a son, isn’t employed anymore. He makes do with his savings and relies on friends to sponsor his outstation birding trips.“Belur and Dankuni stations roughly make up my birding boundary on weekdays,” says Polley with a smile. “If you don’t find me there, it means I am out of town.”
The rewards of this everyday toil might not make sense to most people but accomplished birders vouch for the treasures that Polley often finds and shares with the rest of the fraternity.
“I recently spotted a Yellow-breasted Bunting in Dankuni. I was thrilled and shared the picture with friends over email,” he says.
In birding circles, records such as these are given more importance than a spectacular shot of a bird seen more often. “The arrival of birds seen rarely tells us a lot about our environment and climate. They are not only a delight for the eyes but also an indicator of how well we are preserving nature,” says a birder who has known Polley for years.
Sighting a rare bird is not easy. “It is just like cracking an extremely tough examination after months and, sometimes, years of trying. I have spent an entire day sitting on a boat in Purbasthali lake (in Burdwan) with just 50gm of puffed rice to keep hunger away, all because I wanted to see migratory ducks from close,” Polley says.
So meticulous is Polley about recording bird behaviour that he once visited the same tree every day for two months to see how a babui (weaver) bird builds its nest and rears its young. “That was in Boshipota. The bird took 12 days to build its nest. For the next three days, it laid eggs that took another 20 days to hatch,” he recalls.
The “irrepressible Radhanath Polley”, as he often finds mention in online birding forums, is as knowledgeable about flora as he is about avifauna. “This is what we call sheora in Bengali,” he says, pointing at one. “That is a Krishna tulsi. Its leaves have a tinge of red, distinct from the Radha tulsi, which is green.”
Peers and friends can’t stop praising Polley. “What sets Radhanathda apart is that he also knows trees very well,” says Arjan Basu Roy of the NGO Nature Mates, which had helped clean Santragachhi Jheel last year.
Polley credits birder Subhankar Patra for his “second” career. “I was idling near the gate to my brother’s house when this man walked in. This place was a lot quieter then and more birds used to come,” he reminisces.
Now 66, Polley’s afternoons are spent glued to books on nature. He also cooks for his mother and son. “That’s something I love doing,” he says.
Age has limited Polley’s visits beyond his “regular birding area” over the years. “Earlier, I used to suddenly head out alone. I still go but with other people and less often,” he says.