Birding at Deepor Beel




“You will have to go further into the lake to see the birds.”

“But how does one go there?”

“You can take a boat.”

“Where will I get a boat from?”

“I have a boat. I will take you there.”


This was the conversation that proved to be the turning point in our trip to Deepor Beel in Guwahati, Assam. 


Deepor Beel is a vast freshwater wetland located in the south western part of Guwahati.  It is a natural habitat to many varieties of flora and fauna. Around 219 species of birds including more than 70 migratory species have been reported in the area. More about Deepor Beel here.

  Cormorants over Deepor Beel


We were visiting Guwahati during mid-January in 2013 and decided to pay a visit to the area. On the morning of the trip, the husband and I had a big tiff and we sat in the car with sullen faces while my dad sat behind with the baby. Not a good sign, I said to myself. We took the NH-37 and turned left at an intersection called Gorchuk. We had hardly driven a few metres when we were met by a sign saying that the bridge connecting the Beel had broken down. Not a good sign, I repeated. 


Nevertheless, we enquired with a few locals on an alternate route and were advised to turn around and take the Delhi Public School road. We drove on as directed and quite easily reached Deepor Beel . We parked the car near a watch tower beside the wetland and were dismayed to see a busload of picnickers alighting. It was a Sunday and Bihu time, hence the festive mood surrounding all and sundry. 


We tried to ignore the loud music coming from the direction of the revelers and moved towards the Beel. Disappointment struck us hard. All we could see were scores of black kites circling about, some egrets and a few cormorants. My previous forebodings came back – today was definitely a bad, bad day. The husband tried to keep up a brave face and started clicking at the stray wagtails bobbing about. While he was thus engaged, a person stole up behind him and looked at the pictures on his camera monitor.  “You will have to go further into the lake to see the birds,” he said. And so it happened.

A flock of egrets at Deepor Beel

 An array of boats

 Citrine Wagtail


The person, let’s call him Mr. Das (I am not revealing his name as he is engaged with the forest department and the boat is his ‘side-business’ owing to extreme financial difficulties), got a long and narrow boat for us in a few minutes. We entered the shallow waters, surrounded by water lily leaves. “In a few months’ time these leaves will grow into giant size,” informed Mr. Das. He also told us that these water lilies will then produce makhana (Euryale ferox) or fox nut. They seemed to be a favourite of elephants who would come down from the adjoining hills and forest. 





The cold winter morning wind lashed at us while we scanned the water for signs of birds other than the black kites. Suddenly, the husband pointed his camera towards the banks of the Beel where there seemed to be some kind of frantic movement. To our delight, we spotted a tremendous fight take place between a greater adjutant stork and a steppe eagle (?), their wings spread wide in defense  Although the fight ended abruptly with the stork emerging as the winner, it proved that the day had just unfolded and it was no more a ‘bad day’. Later during the day, we saw quite a few lesser as well as greater adjutant storks.

The fight between the Greater Adjutant Stork and the Eagle 

Full action..
 
 The stork wins..


My dad had, meanwhile, knocked a good rapport with Mr. Das, given their forest background, and they were carrying on an intense conversation on elephants and other issues. We enjoyed listening to their banter as much as we enjoyed the boat ride. Egrets and open billed storks flew past us as our little boat coursed through the water. Mr. Das would point to us the areas wherever elephants had forayed for their food during the night. We were a little dismayed to learn from him that most of the migratory birds had left the Beel on 6th January, almost a week ahead our visit. These included several species of water birds such as greylag goose, northern shoveler, mallard, Eurasian widgeon, eastern spot billed duck as well as pelicans.

 Asian Open billed Stork

Greater Adjutant Stork


I remembered my mom telling me about a flock of brown headed sea gulls which had suddenly appeared in Deepor Beel last year and was reported in the media. Mr. Das confirmed the news and said that lot of rare birds used to come to the Beel in previous years. While fishing is banned in the area, some fishermen continue to do so stealthily. 
 
We spotted a few grey herons amidst the egrets and realized that these birds were relatively uncommon in Assam than in Bangalore where they can be found in almost every large pool of water. A purple heron, true to its solitary nature, peeped out of the tall reeds while barn swallows flitted around. Soon, we reached a clearing where on the far side there sat a big group of Gadwalls and northern Pintails. On sensing our arrival, they flew off honking loudly. Mr. Das who could tell birds from their calls told us about the presence of whistling ducks nearby. There were a number of ducks further away but we did not venture there for fear of the boat getting stuck. 

 Barn Swallow

Northern Pintail in flight




The sun was rising fast up in the sky and we could see a number of other birds like bronze winged jacana, grey headed lapwing and northern lapwing amidst the reeds. We enquired about the presence of pheasant tailed jacana and were informed that they always came to lay their eggs on the water lily leaves during the breeding season. Since the leaves had not reached their actual size yet, the pheasant tailed jacanas were not prominent in the area. 

 Intermediate Egrets and Purple Moorhen


It was around two hours that we were in the Beel and we decided to turn around before the sun turned on its full glory upon us. While returning, we saw several little grebes playfully skimming across the water in their trademark ‘walking on water’ style.  Soon, we reached the bank of the Beel where we could see the preparation of picnic lunch in full swing. It was time to say goodbye to the genteel Mr. Das who had humbly admitted that his knowledge was gained from interacting with expert birders through his career. “It is strange that I know most of the migratory water birds’ name and yet I don’t know the local birds from the hills,” he said.

Little Grebe

Little Cormorant

White breasted Kingfisher
 

We paid him his fees and made our way to the car. Somehow, we were unwilling to leave the Beel and decided to take a small drive around the area. There were hills bordering the wetland and despite the late birding hour, we came across our first sighting of the daurian redstart, a winter visitor to the north eastern part of India. We also saw a group of chestnut tailed starlings and Asian pied starlings in a harvested field. 

Daurian Redstart

 Chestnut tailed Starling



Finally, we had our fill of birding and made our way back home. I was happy that the day turned out so well, compared to its beginning. For once, my dad was proved wrong about his philosophy of “Morning shows the day”. Although we had missed the better part of migratory birds, the boat ride and the conversations that took place with Mr. Das through its course was worth the visit. 


“We will come again next time?” I asked the husband, forgetting all our differences in the morning. He nodded cheerfully. Till next year then!





Complete list of birds sighted:


Steppe Eagle (?), Greater Adjutant Stork, Lesser Adjutant Stork, Grey Heron, Purple Heron, Purple Moorhen, Little Cormorant, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Little Grebe, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Chestnut tailed Starling, Asian Pied Starling, Intermediate Egret, Little Egret, Citrine Wagtail, White Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Daurian Redstart, Barn Swallow, White Breasted Kingfisher, Red vented Bulbul, Black Kite, Bronze winged Jacana, Grey headed Lapwing, Northern Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint.

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