Friday, April 1, 2011


I have been breaking parts of my camera with notorious regularity. At the last count, a freak accident mercifully spared my camera and the lens, but I  still managed to smash the LCD Monitor. If you do not understand the totality of this damage, try driving the car with its bonnet pulled up across the front windscreen. Ironically, the accident in question occured during an unsuccessful trip to Nahargarh, Jaipur in search of the elusive White Naped Tit. My good friend Tej Kumar Sharma of the Animal Rescue Centre, who was accompanying me, turned profusely apologetic, as if he had ordained a secret role in my own clumsiness. Local camera experts in Jaipur were cautiously vague, but fortunately, I was travelling to Mumbai the very next day. Garima, my daughter, who also doubles as my photographic mentor, informed helpfully that the monitor is the most sensitive part of the camera and I should of course take a second opinion, but at the worst, should be prepared to throw away the entire camera as junk. 

So here I was in Mumbai, looking absently at the office laptop screen, but my mind repeatedly mulling the events that led to the fateful rolling of the camera from the car back seat onto the floor of the vehicle. I had deposited the camera at the Canon repair centre, and was advised to check the feasibility of repair after one week.

On that eventful day, two things happened in quick succession.  Garima phoned up to enquire about my camera and then asked me whether while in Mumbai, I had managed time to see the crakes. I had never seen a crake in my life, to be honest, and was obviously quite surprised. It seemed someone had seen four different types of crakes at a single location in Mumbai. Garima promised to send me details.  As I put down the phone, it occured to me that I was without my camera. 

By the time I got details from Garima, it was already afternoon. In desperation, I phoned up Canon again to enquire about my camera, only to be told that the mechanic had not come to the office so far. But barely one and a half hour after my call, as if on cue, there was a call from Canon and I was in astounding luck! My camera was ready and could be picked up the same evening!! By eight that evening, I had the camera with me. It was then that I decided to follow the lead on Crakes seriously.

It was Pradnyavat Mane, a birder from Dombivli near Mumbai who first located presence of four different crakes near a housing society in Thane and posted this finding on birdsofbombay yahoo group. He also reported presence of Greater Painted Snipe there. Soon, there were hordes of birders flocking to Mumbai to see these rare and elusive birds. I believe a few of them even flew in from Delhi and other locations just to get snaps of these migrants.

Information on crakes on the net is quite sketchy and one invariably bumps into the famous novel 'Oryx & Crake' by Margaret Atwood, which obviously has nothing to do with crakes. Crakes are small and secretive marsh birds with short bills and 'laterally compressed' body. Rails look similar to crakes, except that they have much longer bills. According to Peter Slater, 'crakes flick tails constantly and fly with dangling legs'. They also swim well like moorhens. Spending most of the time in reeds and thick water vegetation, crakes emerge from reeds if they are not disturbed and feed along water's edge. They eat frogs, some plants and seeds. Besides rails, crakes are similar in pedigree to coot, swamphen and watercock. Nearly all crakes are winter migrants from Europe and Central Asia, though Harvey, Devsar and Grewal of Delhi Birds mention that there is a possibility that Baillon's crake could be breeding in the Gangetic plains. But this has not been confirmed as at the slightest interference, the birds vanish into the depths of inaccessible reeds.

The site mentioned by Pradnyavat was an abandoned salt pan in Thane. I decided to make a visit to the place in the morning and checked this up with Pradnyavat who, despite being constantly pestered by over-enthusiastic birders, was cool and extremely cooperative. After apologising for not being able to join me, he gave me detailed instructions on the phone for reaching the exact spot. An invaluable tip was that the morning sun will be unfavourable, making photography after 8 AM virtually impossible. Based on this information, I decided to postpone the trip to late afternoon.

In the office that afternoon, I was greeted by a flurry of urgent e-mails and queries that demanded immediate attention. Finally, at 4.30, with great determination, I put the computer to sleep and ventured out with my camera.

I had been warned not to travel by car, and this again proved to be extremely useful advice. Getting off the local train at Thane East, I headed straight for the New English School, which was barely at 5 to 7 minutes walk from the station. As you get to the side gate of the college, a clump of elephant grass or tall weeds greets you. You go around the clump, find a place to sit and concentrate on the base of the tall weeds.

And there I saw, to my delight, the first Spotted Crake, slowly emerging from the weeds and gradually becoming more confident to come out in the open. 

The Tall Reeds Clump at Thane

The reeds clump at Thane is part of a small unconstructed grass land. It is unique that the crakes have chosen to take residence at this location thousands of km away from their origin in Central Asia. Photographer Vivek Arun, who lives close by, informs that the land has already been sold and a year later in the next season, the place may already be unavailable for these birds. As such, it is a unique coincidence to find them here. 

As we took our position on the ground, the Spotted Crake moved in front of us and we were able to click some pictures.

Spotted Crake
 Spotted Crake (Porzana porzana) is not a widely spread visitor to our country and its sightings have also been relatively few. In Mumbai, it has been sighted at Kalyan, Powai and Wada in the last 25 years.  Vivek informed that there are three or four males and females at the present location.

Spotted Crake

However, on this occasion, we only saw a solitary  male, which was not disturbed by the noise made by the casual passers-by. A group of boys returning from their game of cricket paused, mildly amused, and then carried on, while the crake went on patrolling the fringe of reeds. In a few days, the remaining water will dry up and it will be time for the crakes to make their return journey to Central Asia or wherever they have come from.

Spotted Crake

As the evening approached, our Spotted Crake was joined by a Baillon's Crake (Porzana pusilla), but the same was relatively shy. It was clear that the Spotted Crake was more assertive and perfectly at home as the original tenant while the Baillon's was a later visitor.

Spotted Crake

Baillon's Crake

And almost at the end of the wait, we had an appearance by the Ruddy Breasted Crake (Porzana fusca). Both Baillon's  and Ruddy Breasted Crakes are relatively smaller in size as compared to the Spotted Crake.  The Ruddy Breasted Crake was much darker red than what is usually reported in the literature. We waited for the reportedly fourth member of the team, the Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina canningi) but apparently, it had decided to give us a miss. We heard voices in the reeds, which were difficult to identify.

Ruddy Breasted Crake

Vivek on the previous evening had been able to take pictures not only of the Slaty Legged Crake but also Greater Painted Snipe and Cinnamon Bittern. I had to be satisfied with what we saw. As the light deteriorated, it was time to leave. Vivek informed that the spot has been visited so far by nearly a hundred keen bird watchers. Pradnyavat, as the pioneer and custodian of this important location, makes sure that the photographers do not disturb the birds by going too close. He does not take pictures himself, but is happy that the birds have chosen this place as their temporary abode. As we took leave, we were almost certain that this was going to be our solitary sighting of these birds for a long time. Inevitably, the next time around, a tall concrete building will find its place at the very spot where the clump of reeds presently stands. Good bye crakes. Welcome Concrete Jungle.

Jitendra Bhatia
at Thane, March 2011 
© Jitendra Bhatia


  1. Much enjoyed the lovely narration. Jayaram

  2. Wow!!! What a wonderful opportunity in crowded Mumbai!! Makes me wonder what the birdlife would have been like in earlier years! Wish I had taken up birding when I stayed there! Thank you for the superb account and photographs, uncle!