An oxbow lake is a U-shaped body of water that forms when a wide meander from the main stem of a river is cut off, creating a free-standing body of water. This landform is named so for its distinctive curved shape, resembling the bow pin of an oxbow.
‘We know that, don’t we? We’ve learned it in our seventh or eighth standard. Don’t bore us with geographic terms, Agnij!’
I will not bore you with terminology. But what I’m about to write needs the aforementioned information as its base.
The banks of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly distributary of the Ganges are dotted with several known and unknown ox-bow lakes. During recent years, with the surge in the number of amateur nature lovers and wildlife photographers, some of them came under limelight. One of them is located in the Burdwan District of West Bengal. Purbasthali is a village located on the banks of a huge ox-bow lake created by the Bhagirathi-Hooghly River on its course. Its only railway station lies on the Howrah-Katwa line. This huge ox-bow lake is called Chupi Char(pronounced as choopi chawwr) and it is the winter home of several species of winter migrant waders.
And like several amateur bird-watcher and photographer, I decided to get a taste of this place on a fine day. But I faced several hurdles. Firstly, the warmth of blanket and the cozy bed on a winter morning attracts me more than bacon. Secondly, my mother will not let me visit this place, which is a three-hour drive from my home, alone. Lastly, I needed to conquer the first and second hurdle.
I did and here I am writing about it, about the place where sunshine kisses the mist covered village with the most vibrant and warm rays, where the only mode of communication is engine-driven cart or personal vehicle which mostly includes bicycles, where the fields are so immense that the thought of running around it tires me, where the lakes are as blue as the turquoise sky, where the kids wear a warm smile instead of warm clothes on a winter morning.
The oxbow lake of Purbasthali sprawls over an area 3.50 km2 in the post monsoon period of winter months. Beyond the lake, this river fed ecosystem also forms a cluster of large and small islands comprise Purbasthali Gangetic Isle Complex. Formed by the meandering river Ganga, over last 40 years, the area has transformed into a closed loop, allowing emergence of the oxbow lake. This channel of water course in a length of about 10 kilometers feeds the oxbow lake with thin connectivity with the main river with shoals forming at the river mouth. The process of rapid and growing sedimentation threatens to cut off the channel in near future. Thus the present course of the main river shifts further eastward while the original bed holds the loop with stranded water.
When our cart parked near the lake, a gusty wind emerged out of nowhere and brushed across my face with the wet smell of water and the musty smell of the country-roads. My mother tagged along and my aunt too. So my hopes of photographing birds amidst all the home-talks were low. It was 8:45am and the sun was already bright white which further lowered my expectations. I walked towards the lake. Reaching the shore, I asked for a boatman whom I called previously and asked him to stay there around 9. Brindaban Rajbanshi is a man of small stature, in his late 50s or early 60s with an immense knowledge on migratory birds and their habitats. He greeted me with a humble smile and hand-shake (westernization has crept in village life).
The vast lake reflected the sun as we carefully walked down the muddy banks, step by step, to the boat. Boarding the boat was the hardest part of the journey for Maa. She feared the boat might capsize (near the shore). Anyway, peacefully, we started our ride on the calm waters.
I had my tripod placed properly and the camera mounted on it like a gun. I was ready to shoot! As we slowly crept on the water, the black dots far away started growing bigger and bigger and gradually the black faded away to bright red and white and the dots were no more dots they had a shape, a shape that resembles a duck. As the boat approached them, I saw through the lens the bright red beaks, and the red crest with black backs and white wings, a flock of 30-35. Red Crested Pochards. I had only dreamt of this bird till now. And now I can see small flocks, each of about 20-40, scattered all over the lake.
There were flocks of Gadwalls, mixed flocks of Common Coots and Eurasian Wigeons, Northern Pintails and Garganeys.
As my eyes adjusted to the bright light, I started recognizing the birds. All of them were in flocks except the herons and the egrets. They stood tall on the hyacinth patches, looking intently in the water for its next prey. Asian Openbills, Purple Heron, Little Egrets, Intermediate Egrets and Great Egrets flew from one place to another constantly. The waders, being disturbed by some other boats were on a constant move. So I waited for moments to capture. I found an Intermediate Egret standing like a statue, searching for fish. I asked Brindaban to stop the boat at a distance, and I kept an eye on the view finder. And after, what seemed to be a long wait, the egret caught a fish in a blink of an eye, and my finger was pressed on the shutter button, till the shutter locked.
In front of the egret there was a sandpiper, frequently lowering its head to have a peck on the algae and the grass and the aquatic insects.
Maa was patient the whole time, watching in awe the beautiful red crested pochards and their red crests and trying to capture them on her phone but in vain. Suddenly, she erupted, ‘Leave that sandpiper alone, will you? There are so many pretty birds around other than that sandpiper. Why don’t you photograph them?’ I took a mental note: Never go on a bird-watching or photographing trip with Maa again.
I left the sandpiper alone. Brindaban turned the boat around, and I faced the bright sunlight. I started seeing everything in blue and black. Until I reached a proper distance to photograph any bird I saw practically nothing. This went for a couple of hours. In the mean time, I missed a flight sequence of Grey Headed Swamphens, Pheasant tailed Jacanas, Cotton Pygmy Geese. I concentrated on nature in the meantime. I concentrated on the cacophony made by the waders, the shrill call of kites hovering above, rolling call of a kingfisher. I listened intently and heard the sound of the wind brushing against the surface of water and the music of small waves breaking down on the sides of the boat and the splash of the oar as it pierced through the surface tension of the water with each rotation.
And in no time we entered a vast area from where the ISKCON temple of Mayapur is visible and from where the big boats on the Bhagirathi-Hooghly can be seen. But since it was early afternoon, we didn’t get a glimpse of what we came for. We went a bit further and then turned around and started returning. And there it was the mighty predator of the lake, OSPREY.
I won’t go into details of how two other boats raced up and down the water chasing the osprey from one pole to another to get flight photographs, till it flew away.
Brindaban was disappointed as well and said that this nonsensical behavior is endangering the very existence of birds. Purbasthali might not meet its international guests next year or after a couple of years. He added, “Since this region is somewhat outside the village, poaching is in practice and thus birds don’t usually come here. They are frightened. If this continues, no one knows what will happen.”
We returned to the main region and while returning we saw a flock of Black headed Ibis along with the Openbill Storks and wagtails prancing here and there. Suddenly, we spotted some red-legged waders. Instantly, one name popped in my mind: Common Redshanks. But to my utter surprise, there was another guest, actually two guests, two species. Among the Redhshanks the Godwits stood tall with their head buried in their wings, only peeping to see who the intruder is. The warm glow from the setting sun illuminated the whole scene, giving it a subtle dramatic mood. The other species, what I thought to be the Greenshanks, which I saw in the same spot a few hours earlier, was actually stints.
The sun dipped under the horizon quickly, and winds started blowing. The chill was in the air, and the boat anchored in the harbor. The sky turned a warm blue and the birds started returning to their homes. I turned back and bid adieu to Brindaban. Maa was so silent the whole time, I almost forgot that she was there and my aunt too. The trio headed back to the station and took the next train back home.
While returning I started planning for my next trip to Purbasthali.
I will return for the Osprey. I will return for the blue.
Visit Agnij Sur Photography for more.
- How to Reach: (via train) Take the Katwa local from Howrah or Sealdah. Purbasthali railway station is right next to Nabadwip. From the railway station you could take a van rickshaw to Kasthasali or Chupi Char. It’s not more than 10/15 minutes.
(via Road) By road you come via Memari to Kusumgram. Turn right at Kusumgram and go to Nadanghat (a few KM after Kusumgram there is a left exit towards Nadanghat – contiuing on the straight road would take you to Kalna). Turn left at Nadanghat towards Purbasthali. This straight road goes to Katwa. Turn right from the state highway near Purbasthali Bazaar. Cross the level crossing and go to Kasthasali.
- Boatmen: Brindaban Rajbanshi: 9749197788. Jayanta Da: 9734465974
- How to return: http://indiarailinfo.com/search/search-trains-purbasthali-psae-to-howrah-hwh/6426/0/1 (choose any as per you schedule)
- Boat Ride fees are negotiable. But be generous and don’t haggle too much, the boatmen depend on this earning only.
- Carry dry foods, plenty of water with you on a day long trip. Carry First Aid if you want to.
- Don’t prance around on the boat, it won’t capsize, you might.
- Don’t litter, KEEP THE LAKE AND THE SURROUNDINGS CLEAN.
- Don’t use baits, I REPEAT, REFRAIN FROM USING BAITS.