In search of the King!
Updated: Sep 3, 2019
That evening is clearly etched in my mind. Sommouli Sarkar had just called and asked "Kal Raja dekhte jabe naki?" ("Will you go in search of the King tomorrow?"). "Yes! Yes!". Who would miss out on the elusive King Quail or the Blue-breasted Quail (Excalfactoria chinensis). Excited, I agreed to wake up at 4am the next morning despite daily duty calling later in the day. I was to be accompanied by Abhijit Das, Soumi Goswami and Bibaswan Sarkar.
Day 1 - Friday, 19th July, 2019
After a never ending one hour drive from home (Dassnagar, Howrah), the location was relatively easier to find among the large stretch of marshland near the Central Correctional Home at Baruipur. Thanks Google! A group of eager photographers were already at the spot. Santanu Manna and Sommouli greeted us with a smile along with a couple of others. A narrow desire path through a stretch of marshland, which is frequented by locals mostly during the afternoons, is the supposed hotspot. Bordered by more than a feet high grasses, the path could hardly accommodate three or four photographers side by side with very poor visibility for the ones standing on the sides. The scenario to spot the bird(s) was that some thirty feet away from where we stand, a group of king quails are supposed to cross the path probably from left to right! Without giving a second glance to a Slaty-breasted Rail, a couple of Greater Painted-snipes and a few Grey-headed Swamphens, I hurried with my very heavy (and very new) 600mm and tripod to take my place amongst the first comers. All set! The hands indicated it was only 6.20am. Now began the waiting game.
The previous sightings of the King Quails were between 6:30am and 09:00am while the first sighting was recorded on 14th July, 2019 by Prasil Biswas, Prasenjit Bhattacharjee, Abhishek Roy and Santanu Das. What a finding for Kolkata! Congratulations guys! The scattered clouds shielded us from the scorching sun which was the only relief during the long wait.
It was already 7.30am and so far the ever so active Zitting Cisticolas, Plain Prinias and Black-headed Munias were keeping us entertained.
But our eyes were trained on that meandering grassy path. Blink and you might miss it! A large group of Asian Openbills were taking off at the horizon. Oh, what a sight it was! I was about to click those, when all of a sudden Santanu exclaimed "Beroche!!!" ("Those are coming out!!"). What followed was a blur. A tiny dark brown ball resembling a smallsized field rat, dashed across the path from left to right. Couldn't even locate the bird through the viewfinder let alone focus or shoot it! Everyone was on their toes, not their own toes, but on others' toes, an elbow shoved to my left ribs, a lens knocked my right arm. In an instant, four more quails followed, scurrying past each other. All I could see were some half focused balls of feathers, for god's sake those could have been some discoloured chicks! After a fury of shutter clicks, all was quiet.
Everyone was looking down at their displays, sighing one by one. Damn not a single photo was in focus! Saddened, we left the location by 9.30am without any further sightings, knowing that second sightings on the same day were really rare. It was evident that this bird was going to be the most complex and difficult model to get any good photograph of. Before leaving, it was decided that we will positively try our luck again the very next day.
Day 2 - Saturday, 20th July, 2019
Most from our group were unable to make it the next day. So, on 20th July, it was only Bibaswan Sarkar and me. We reached the location a bit late at around 6.30am. Saturday! I don't know how, but there were at least 20 birders/bird-photographers standing on that narrow path. I was half expecting a queue at a make-shift ticket counter with a "King Quail! This way!" signboard. Lugging my equipments, I could only manage a third row seat. Sigh! Again the long wait began. Time passed slowly even with hushed chitchats with some fellow birders. 7:00, 7:30, 8:00. Not a sign! Anxiety was in the air. A small flock of about 5 small birds in flight caught the corner of my eyes. Before figuring out what those were, the flock entered the tall grasses to the left of where we were standing. It took a second to understand. That was the King Quail family! Recollecting the sight was so memorable. But then we realized that the group of birders was too big, which may have frightened the birds. Maybe we were really stepping into its privacy and so we moved back a few steps. Everyone started feeling restless. Minutes passed. It was already 8.15am. Maybe it was too late for that day. A few of us including Bibaswan and me, chose to get off the path for sometime and look around for some other birds. We had just exit the mud path and were busy clicking a rewarding Tricolored Munia, when we noticed that the dispersed crowd had suddenly set into a frenzy. Everyone's camera was turned at the same direction like a flamboyance of flamingos and a storm of camera had started. Bibaswan had already broken into a run and I followed at his heels. I reached the crown just in time to see a single brown blur cross the road from left to right. I lifted my camera, but alas that one was the last of the quail to cross the path. No more movements. Darn my luck! What a mistiming! It was frustrating to have waited there for so long, but to miss it just by a few seconds, all because of lack of patience.
Lessons learnt. Pack up it was. That Black-headed Munia (or Tricolored Munia) was the only keeper for the day.
Day 3 - Tuesday, 23rd July, 2019
After the weekend birding craze was over, we were expecting less footfall on Tuesday. But no. Its a King Quail and no one can refuse an audience when the King calls! Though we reached by 6:00am, there were already a few birders at the location. We took our posts really fast, hoping for the best. The time game started again. We kept placing bets on when the Quails might come out as if the one who guesses the closest time, will win a virtual lottery. But it looked like everyone's guessing was wrong. We found a flock of Munias exactly where the Quails should have been foraging. At least something was better than nothing.
Occasionally, a couple of Yellow Bitterns and Black Bitterns would fly by. Or a flying Grey-headed Swamphen would exhibit its brilliant purple.
Spotting an Indian Spotted Eagle soaring up high was an interesting addition to the day.
6:30, 7:00, 7:30, 8:00, 8:30. Soon it was duty calling most of the birders. One by one everyone started leaving. Still no see. I was so frustated from Saturday's mistiming, I was not ready to leave just yet. Maybe I would get lucky to get just a record shot. 9:30 am, and it was getting very hot and humid. Heat waves were becoming a problem. Now or never, otherwise the photos wont come out sharp anyways. Then it happened! A dashing ball of feathers crossed the path from left to right. The second bird to cross was the adult male and it took less than half a second to cross. Swoosh! The third bird was also gone in a flash. Luckily the fourth bird, a juvenile was moving a bit slowly and blessed us with a couple of photos. Rest of everything was a blur. 9:50 am was the magic moment of the day.
At long last, I had something of a photo of a King Quail, no matter even if it was a juvenile one. Proof of sanity for my early morning ventures. Now to aim for the adult male quail. I was determined to capture that brilliant blue and brown. A visit was guaranteed the next day.
Day 4 - Wednesday, 24th July, 2019
It had become more of a habit now. I was already wide awake at 4:00am, dreaming of the King Quails! Unable to persuade Santanu and Sommouli, my father and I turned up at "the" location quite early again. Same routine and waiting game started. Just waiting at one spot looking out for one bird, without blinking is very tiresome. Staring at the path for more than four or five hours just for a 10-second show? Unable to look at any other birds? Bordering boredom! But yes, we had to keep our hopes high. Unsure when the sighting would be, a portable camping stool was a welcome comfort. The weather was another tricky element. Fast moving rain clouds meant a splash of rain any moment and scorching heat the very next. We were constantly at a lookout for the dark clouds at the horizon, as a mistimed rainfall may push the quails to not come out at all. Also the lack of rain over the last week meant the land had dried up and the quails had more ground to forage from, lessening the chances of a sighting. Our only hope was that the quails being a young family, they might tend to stick to their foraging routes. So pocketing all our hopes, we waited. A sudden movement on the path! Lights, camera, action! Only it was a Zitting Cisticola playing tricks on us. Damn.
After the trickery, not a minute had passed. Out came the quails! The first fellow stalled in the middle of the path for a couple of seconds observing if the coast was clear and scuttled inside. Next came the adult male. Yes at last there it was. What a piece of beauty! Click, click, click!
But the lovely sight was over within seconds as all five of them moved inside. Browsing through the pics, I was happy that there were at least a couple of keepers, though most of the pics were blurred. A dark blue skittish small bird at a distance of thirty feet away on a cloudy day, proved to be the most difficult focusing situation. Even for a 600mm prime. Nevertheless, you can never be satisfied with your photos.
It was an injustice, not to look at the Slaty-breasted Rail on our way out. Somehow I had to pass the weekend crowd and plan a visit later next week.
Day 5 - Monday, 29th July, 2019
Last evening's phone call from Sommouli was a unbelievable. All of Monday's plan had to be postponed. Something magical had happened during Sunday morning's birding session. The King Quail family had stayed out in the open for more than five minutes or so. It had been a gala for all the photographers present there. Sommouli and Santanu had visited that morning only be late by minutes and unfortunately, had missed the entire show. So on Monday, we were determined to pay a visit.
Excited, we were the first trio to reach the location that day. Rain over the last few days had made the grass greener. Visibility had reduced a lot due to taller grasses in front. Another obstacle for focusing the skittish bird. Nevertheless we took our positions, our cannons (Nikons) mounted. The weather was the trickiest that day. The drizzle never seemed to stop. Occassionally the sun came out. Once a double rainbow shone over the horizon. What a sight it was! A zitting cisticola in the golden rays was another sight to remember.
Splashes of rain on the greenest fields were a cure for the eyes.
But saving our cameras from the rain and at the same time, fiddling constantly with raincovers and umbrellas, was a tedious task. Water level inside my gumboots was over my heels already. I had to handover my phone, car keys to Sommouli, for safe keeping in his raincoat pocket. A few fellow birders were also struggling to keep their cameras out of harms way. "Kokhon berobe?" ("When will it come out?") was the question on everyone's mind. We were not the only ones getting drenched in the field. A Greater Coucal was having a jolly good time looking around for food in the rain.
We were still fighting the rain, when at 08:42am, suddenly a juvenile Quail came out and stood flabbergasted in the middle of the path. Before we could drop our umbrellas and lift our cameras, it went back inside. We were ready! Out came the flock of five. The adult female with three juveniles were in the back while the adult male was foraging alone in front. Fantastic sighting!
Surprisingly two of the juveniles had already started moulting. The black and white mask was prominent on their chins, while the feathers on their sides were turning blue and the underside already getting a touch of brown. I was undecided which one to click with all five of them out on the path. But I forced myself to fix the focus on the adult male in front.
It never lifted its head and constantly foraged on the ground. It did not waste a moment to look around.
The light drizzle in the background and the tiny drops of rain on the back of the Quail were a pleasant addition to the images.
After a frenzy of clicks, the flock went inside. Checking the camera, it showed that the sighting lasted a duration of more than one and half minutes. This was beyond our expectations! Happy but not content. The more you get, the more you want. We stayed at our positions hoping we might get another round of sighting. Unfortunately that was not to be. A pitch-black cloud was looming over the horizon, slowly approaching us. But we were rooted at the spot, lest the quails chose to come out again. Then came the rumbling thunder. No, it would be too much of a risk. We started packing and running towards our cars. But the clouds did not give us much time, the rain came pouring down. We reached our cars, but Sommouli was still struggling to take out the car keys from his jacket pocket. We stood by our car, cameras in our laps, with the rain crashing down on us and could do nothing. I nearly had to shove my tripod and lens underneath the car to save it from the rain. At last, we could unlock the car and put away our priceless out of harms way. After last week's burning sun, getting drenched in the chilling rain was a bliss. With the male King Quail in our cards, the day was as rewarding as it could get.
Day 6 - Wednesday, 31st July, 2019
I could not let go of the magic of the King Quail. I had to try again and again to get the best image. On Wednesday, we set out again on the King Quest. Time was of utmost importance, and we were all set at the spot by 06:15am. Little did we know what was coming! Hardly five minutes had passed, and the show began! At 06:21am, the juvenile male came out in the open, quite close to us.
It stood still for a few seconds, and then the whole flock joined. It was a breakfast party! All the quails joined the party and were foraging on the path. But wait, the adult male was not visible. There were only five birds, one adult female, two juvenile males (moulting) and two other juveniles.
Alas, the adult male could not be seen. Maybe it had separated from the group as the young ones were growing up very fast. Despite the absence of the male, we were in a shooting frenzy. This pose, that pose, that angle, this headturn! Whichever way we wanted. It was Christmas!
The flock went inside after what seemed like a minute or so. Our hearts' content. I checked the time in the photos, and realized that we were actually watching the birds for a total of 4 minutes and 50 seconds! Felt like it was only a few seconds. What a grand show it was! We were so happy that we were ready to leave. But we had a feeling that the flock hadn't moved much and maybe there was a chance of another sighting. Again at 06:55am, the flock came out in the open, a little further away. With ample opportunity, it was time to shoot some videos as well. Now I was able to plan and shoot carefully.
This time the sighting continued for 4 minutes and 3 seconds. This was totally unbelievable! With a wide grin, we still waited at the spot. Everyone was through all the photos in their cameras. Ready to pack up and leave for home. But no, the quails wouldn't let us. At 08:18am, the show started again. This time the flock came out from the right side of the path, foraging. They were quite closer this time, but due to the hustle bustle, they shied a few feet back.
Nevertheless the foraging continued. Photos and videos filled our cards to the brim. The longest duration so far, it had lasted 4 minutes and 57 seconds.
The hourly affair continued. Again at 09:06am, we could spot the flock, this time at a distance. How much do you imagine such a tiny bird could eat? They never seemed to stop. No wonder the little ones were growing in size and moulting so quickly. This time for a short duration of 54 seconds, the quails gave us one last glimpse. Our wait till 11am was full of excited chitchats, but without any more sightings. We bid farewell hoping that the Quails make it through.
At last our quest for the King Quail had ended. The smallest "true" quail family had left us with an adventure and lots of photographs to remember for a lifetime.
Incidentally the King Quail was sighted and photographed at Kenjar near the Mangalore International Airport on 28th March, 2019 by Arnold M Goveas, Roshan Kamath and Vivek Nayak. It was sighted and photographed on consecutive days as well. (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mangaluru/rare-king-quail-sighted-near-mia/articleshow/68821376.cms)
The first photographic record of the King Quail from in and around Kolkata was on 14th August, 2019 by Prasil Biswas, Prasenjit Bhattacharjee, Abhishek Roy and Santanu Das.
My E-bird checklists links of the King Quail in the Baruipur Wetlands are as follows
Day 1 - Fri, 19th July, 2019 - https://ebird.org/india/view/checklist/S58286349
Day 2 - Sat, 20th July, 2019 - https://ebird.org/india/view/checklist/S59128665
Day 3 - Tue, 23rd July, 2019 - https://ebird.org/india/view/checklist/S59128844
Day 4 - Wed, 24th July, 2019 - https://ebird.org/india/view/checklist/S59129178
Day 5 - Mon, 29th July, 2019 - https://ebird.org/india/view/checklist/S59129405
Day 6 - Wed, 31st July, 2019 - https://ebird.org/india/view/checklist/S59129559
Special thanks to Abhijit Das, Soumi Goswami, Sulata Das, Sommouli Sarkar, Santanu Manna and Bibaswan Sarkar for being a part of this quest.
Equipments used: Nikon D850, Nikon 600mm f/4 FL, Gitzo GT5543XLS Tripod
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