I never can resist the chance to spend a few days in the city of my birth and childhood memories, the place that will always be “home” – Kolkata. A trip to Nameri/Kaziranga in March presents just such a chance, with an extra day on each side to spend in one of my favouritest places on earth. I reach Kolkata past midnight on Friday, and before anyone at home can register my presence, am whisked off the next morning to experience the most talked-about birding location in the East, the marshy area of Joka, recently found to host some exceedingly rare winter migrants.
It is still dark when we reach Joka, enroute we have run into dense fog which envelopes us like a blanket. We turn off the main road onto a mud path, but soon find an unexpected road block in the form of a pile of sand deposited across the path. A couple of labourers obligingly clear a section for us with their shovels, just wide enough for the car to pass through. Driving further, we startle several men caught in the middle of their morning ablutions, in an area which my companions lovingly refer to as “potty park”. Finally the car can go no further, we step out and make our way in the pre-dawn darkness to the focal point of the marsh, a thatched hut with a “birding platform” from where a ringside view of the rarities is promised. To get there through the tall grass and reeds a delicate balancing act is required, along a precarious bamboo ‘bridge’ on which I focus my intense concentration.
The entire exercise has a touch of the surreal about it, and I can’t help but feel like Alice in Wonderland, escorted by the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the White Rabbit. At the platform we meet the person credited with discovering Joka as a birding area, along with his young assistant who has just appeared for his higher secondary examination (or perhaps spent it birding at Joka). The fog shows no signs of clearing. Now we wait. And smoke, if so inclined.
Slowly the bird activity starts picking up, and I walk around the area trying not to step on anything offensive. The hazards underfoot are soon forgotten, though, as lifers start popping up around me – a tantalizing glimpse of a rusty-rumped warbler skulking in the hyacinth, a yellow-bellied prinia perched on a blade of grass, singing the fog away, and most amazingly, a rufous-rumped bristled grassbird which gives a viewing for ten full minutes, oblivious to our presence. As the fog slowly lifts, we hear a response from the star attraction of Joka – the lanceolated warbler. This is one of the rarest winter migrants to the subcontinent, and Joka is the only known and confirmed location in India to see it. We watch this exceedingly beautiful, heavily streaked warbler skulking inside the reeds and almost completely obscured behind a curtain of grass. I capture sections of it in my camera, half expecting it to fade like the Cheshire cat. Was this worth losing sleep over? You bet! Mission accomplished, and we head back to the “real” world, a Bengal bushlark nicely rounding off my morning of lifers down the rabbit hole.
(*) with apologies to Lewis Carroll