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Spot a bird, spy a habitat threat

Bespectacled Arka Sarkar, his slight frame bearing the weight of a bazooka-like lens, scanned the Bagherdanga landscape and shook his head in disappointment.

Arka wasn’t ruing a missed bird shot. He was missing the grassland that used to be where he was standing this Sunday morning.

“This used to be a vast, open patch until last year. Now there are houses close by and not a munia in sight,” Arka said.

The 33-year-old birder was part of a group of seven out on a dawn-to-dusk mission along with around 29 other Calcutta teams who had enlisted for the first edition of Bengal Bird Day, an exercise meant to record as many avian species on a single day.

The day’s species count included wintering migrants who are likely to leave their temporary habitats in the city and its vicinity by the time the pan-India Big Bird Day is held in mid-February. “We decided on having a count while the weather is still cold enough for the winter birds to stay put. This was necessary for a more accurate picture of bird life in our city and state,” said conservationist and birder Sumit Sen.

Bagherdanga, near Shyamkhola on the southern fringe, was just one stop among many for Sen and his fellow birders on a day that was as much about the joy of being greeted by the unexpected as the disappointment of not seeing the expected.

The team comprising Sen, Bhaskar Das, Supriyo Samanta, Sujan Chatterjee, Prosenjit Singha Deo, Anirban Chatterjee and Arka started their bird race on a piece of marshy land at Gotberia in Jagaddal, about 2km from the Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama in Narendrapur, at 7am.

The soil there had once been dug extensively to feed brick kilns. The unregulated digging created small water bodies with shrubs, patches of grass and some trees surrounding them.

The birders found a Yellow Wagtail and a Brown Shrike there, both trans-Himalayan migrants. So far so good.

The team next entered Dinglepota village that marks the border of Sonarpur-Rajpur Municipality’s jurisdiction. Beyond that is panchayat territory. A small bamboo plantation at the entry to the village harboured a flock of noisy Jungle Babblers, a common species.

On the main metalled road outside Dinglepota, Sen and his team spotted a Black-hooded Oriole, a pretty picture with its prominent yellow body and black head. A Streak-throated Woodpecker busy picking out insects from the trunk of a tree added to the excitement.

An Oriental Darter was spotted in a nearby water body.

Birds may be easy to find in the Shyamkhola area — 73 species were recorded in about two hours of birding on Sunday morning — but the threat from its proximity to urban development is hard to miss. Small hoardings inviting bookings for apartments line both flanks of the metalled road, many of them advertising how many minutes it takes to reach the city from those sites.

A kilometre ahead, Sen points out what used to be a small water body. It was there till last year’s Big Bird Day but has since been three-fourths filled with soil. “Development is inevitable. But it should be planned, not haphazard like what we saw there,” he said.

At Bagherdanga and its vicinity, the residents seemed hardly aware of bird life in their area. A group of youths was busy stopping cars to collect subscription for Saraswati Puja. Walled picnic spots — baganbari in popular parlance — were being readied for weekend revelry. The caretaker of one such property said an RJ would be performing there in the evening.

Veteran birder Shubhankar Patra, who chose the Baidyabati canal in Hooghly district for his Bengal Bird Day outing, said many trees had been felled in that area over the past few years. “Human habitation is closing in on the canal,” rued the 66-year-old, who had left his Bally home at 6am and taken a train to Baidyabati to join a 15-member team.

The group recorded 88 species, including the Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Clamorous Reed Warbler, Grey-headed Lapwing, Common Snipe and Green Sandpiper.

The disappointing part was not finding species such as the Common Iora and Great Tit, both of which have been previously recorded there.

The total number of species recorded during the day across the city and Bengal will be available a week later after lists compiled by the teams are collated.

Kshounish S. Ray, one of the co-ordinators of Bengal Bird Day, said around 100 teams participated in the event across the state, up from 62 during Big Bird Day last year. East and West Midnapore and West Dinajpur drew a blank, not in terms of birds but participation in the first Bengal Bird Day.