A forgotten story of Poland in India

While watching Crab Plovers and Great Knots in tidal flats outside Jamnagar, I noticed this cluster of buildings across the water, which make up a school. It turns out to have a forgotten history. Polish children interned in USSR during World War II were allowed to leave in 1942, provided some country took them in. The Jamsaheb Digvijay Singhji of Jamnagar opened up his seaside resort as a refuge for the children. That is the red-tiled building that you see in the featured photo. That’s the bare bone of the story. The children stayed here till 1946. During this time many were reunited with their families. Of those who had lost their families, several chose to remain in India.

Scanning old newspapers I pieced together the story of a British refusal to let the refugee ship dock in India (paralleling the Canadian response to refugees on Komagata Maru). On the intervention of the Jamsaheb, the ship finally docked in Rosi, a port which belonged to the kingdom of Jamnagar. The cultural sensitivity of the times has also been recorded: schooling in Polish, providing Polish food, and the freedom to raise the flag of Poland. Jamnagar was the first kingdom to accept Polish refugees, and others across the world followed. It is interesting to read about this at a time when there is a spreading belief that the post-war international order, including the rights of refuge, were put in place by the wartime Allies, largely the old imperial powers. This is false. Parts of the new world order are informed by values which belong to the wider and more diverse world which was emerging at that time.

Rage against the dying of the light

Like many others, I must have discovered Dylan Thomas’ poem in my teenage years. In those days it was a sort of a secret anthem on how to live for a cryptic club. The anthem adapts to circumstances. On a late afternoon walk through the Marine National Park in the Gulf of Kutch, I thought about the poem again. People I knew in Wuhan were already in lock-down, and in February it was already clear that the pandemic would strike some time, but that was not what was uppermost in my mind.

We strolled for more than a kilometer out to the waterline. The tide in this gulf is spectacular, and the receding sea had left pools in which we could see sponges, puffer fish and crabs. Over the years I’d discovered that I was similar to a migratory shorebird, like the common greenshanks (Tringa nebularia), which visits these pleasant coasts in winter, striding through tide pools, stopping to inspect things, turning over little stones. The sun was about to set. “Time to go back”, said someone. “Just a few minutes more”, I said, trying to prolong the pleasant day, raging against the dying of the light.

The poem is about living right, as all teenagers know. It is not about dying.

Star-tailed

In this sweltering heat of Mumbai it feels nice to look back at the photos of the winter that’s just gone by. The many winter visitors include these gulls with stars in their tails. Once you notice that, you have narrowed the identification down to three: Mew gulls, Caspian gulls, and Heuglin’s gulls. Mew gulls are the smallest, and very rare in India. This was too big. The Heuglin’s and Caspian are about the same size, and distinguished by the shape of the head (Heuglin’s is broader) and the darkness of the wings (Heuglin’s is darker). This could be Heuglin’s gull (Larus fuscus heuglini). I consulted an oracle, and it was.

Hectic times on tidal flats

Little Warsaw (there”s a long story there) of Jamnagar stands near a tidal flat. We reached when the tide was coming in. A group of Sarus cranes (Antigone antigone) was foraging in the low waters. They are wonderful to watch at all times, so it was a while before I took my eyes off them to look at the tourists basking on a spit of sand beyond them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

They were mostly Crab plovers (Dromas ardeola) winter visitors from Sri Lanka and Maldives. You wouldn’t think anyone would leave those Indian Ocean islands to come and winter in Gujarat. There has to be a story there; one that I intend to follow up some time. As they roosted, a noisy flock of Great Knot (Calidris tenuirostris) came flying in. As they picked their way between the roosting Craab plovers, I noticed some distinctive Heuglin’s gulls (Larus fuscus heuglini) floating behind the islet. The gulls roost in the water.

A knot of locals were sitting by the shore when we arrived, and now they decided to wade out. Their village was probably on the far side of the flats, and they seemed pretty sure of the route to follow. I heard more commotion, and I took my eyes off them. A bunch of elegant Eurasian Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) cam flying in. The Crab plovers were beginning to get crowded out. There was a lot of squawking and crying from the mixed bunch on the island. The villagers had turned in the meanwhile. They were definitely following a fixed route.

The Great Knots were alert to the approaching humans, and took off in a flurry of wing-beats. The Crab plovers had given up on their sleep and here on their feet. The villagers were very close to the islet when they birds took off. As the humans crossed the sand on their way home, a few brave plovers stood their ground. When they were gone, the Crab plovers came back to reclaim the island for themselves. They wanted to spend the afternoon roosting. We were off for lunch.

Colourless flamingos

Juvenile flamingos are not a bird enthusiast’s favourite. Unlike the well-fed adults, with their attractive pink colours, the young look dowdy and unremarkable. But, these young lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus minor) presented a pretty picture as they fed in this stagnant stretch of water, green with algae. The algae are exactly what attracted these birds here. The lesser flamingo’s diet is largely made of algae, unicellular plants, and cyanobacteria that fill such stagnant pools. These microscopic organisms are rich in the beta-carotenoids associated with the chlorophyll that they contain. These carotenoids will eventually be deposited in the feathers of the flamingos, and turn them pink, red, or orange. What a marvelous transformation!

On a lark

When I saw the pair of ashy crowned sparrow larks (Eremopterix griseus) and took the photo that is featured, it was the end of a morning’s hunt. As soon as we arrived in this place. Adesh had identified a female by its call. I was excited, because I’d only seen the male of the species before. Even now I kept seeing glimpses of the male. Adesh was certain that the female had not left. Eventually, waiting paid off, and the female appeared in plain sight to sit with the male. I was struck by the differences in colouring and behaviour. Often, such differences point to different roles in the rearing of the young.

Apparently not in this case. From what I read, both sexes play equal roles in building nests, incubating the eggs and feeding the young. The difference between the birds is a result of what Darwin recognized as sexual selection, the process of choosing mates leads to escalating behavioural and morphological differences between the sexes: the overt masculinization of the male and the overt femininization of the female, without other important biological differences. The different appearance of the male must be part of this process (although I am going out on a limb, guessing here, because no one has tested this idea out). The most visible difference in behaviour is the courting ritual of the male: the high flights, the trills let loose at the apex of the dive. So wonderful that Shelley wrote a long ode (Hail, to thee … that from Heaven, or near it, pourest thy full heart in profuse strains of unpremeditated art, and so on) to the lark. But when behaviour is different, and biology is almost the same, that’s when gender politics rears its head. Apparently the female works harder at feeding the young!

Lakhota lake

On our last morning in Jamnagar we went for a walk to Lakhota lake. The lake was originally a defensive position, but was expanded into a water reservoir for the town after successive failed monsoons in the middle of the 19th century CE. This was amazing in the morning: an island of serenity in the middle of this crowded and bustling town, full of gulls, ducks, and other water birds. I’ve posted photos of some of these birds earlier, and will continue to post others for a while.

The circular building in the middle of the lake (featured photo) is now called the Lakhota Palace. It was originally a fort, as the blank facade still proclaims. By the beginning of the 19th century, it had lost its purpose. Now it is an archaeological museum. I’d read about the recreation of a medieval Gujarati village inside the fort, and would have liked to see it. But when we arrived the doors to the causeway leading to the fort were firmly shut. It wouldn’t open for another three hours. By then we would be ready to drive out to the nearest airport, which was some distance away. This was a bad miss.

Standing outside the barred gate I looked towards the middle of the city, and saw this strange structure. It was also barred to entry. I found later that this was called the Bhujiyo Kotho, and was another medieval fortification. It is reported to have had a tunnel, now collapsed, connected in a straight line to the city of Bhuj. The tunnel would have had to go under the Gulf of Kutch, and I wondered whether this kind of engineering was possible in the medieval period in Gujarat. In any case, the fort had been badly damaged in the Bhuj earthquake of 2001, and has not yet been restored. It would be a massive effort to restore it.

So that left us with only one thing to do, which was to take a leisurely walk around the lake. At this time of the morning the place had quite a few visitors, all out for a morning’s walk. We met families curious about our binoculars and scopes, and Adesh Shivkar was in his element, telling children about ducks. Passing children were fascinated by the views of birds through the scope, and I realized again what a wonderful asset he is for conservationists.

After an hour of walking slowly around the lake, pausing every now and then to watch birds, we were ready for our breakfast. I looked back at the womderful broad promenade around the lake, and took a photo which tries to capture the serene atmosphere of that morning.

Not such a common babbler

The common babbler (Argya caudata, formerly Turdoides caudata) is a bird which I find hard to recognize by sight. When they are in their usual noisy foraging group, I can tell them from their voice (the recording linked below was made by Peter Boesman) and behaviour. Among the babblers they have perhaps the longest tails, and they are smaller and slimmer than the other babbler species. Certainly, their call is sweeter than the querulous grating calls of the other babblers.

At the end of a day’s bording outside Jamnagar, as we drove along a country lane, we spotted a lone bird on a meswak tree. We stopped the car. All four of us had puzzled looks on our faces. What could it be? Eventually, The Family asked tentatively, “Is it a common babbler?” We sheepishly agreed, thanking our luck that the more experienced people in the group were not close enough to have seen this piece of rank amateurism.

We’d seen a lone common babbler earlier in the day and paused to recall how to identify it: small, long tailed, overall dusty colour, streaked head and back, and a very distinctive white patch below the throat. But when confronted with a small brown bird, we were like absolute novices. The torturer there could have let out a song to help us, couldn’t it?

She stoops to conquer

There’s one fabulous upside to traveling in a group of like minded people. I discovered it during our bird watching trip to Jamnagar in Febraury. You get pushed into doing things which you had not tried before. One of my travel companions, let us call him Knowledge, was a fashion photographer who had recently turned to bird photography. He was constantly trying to get birds in flight. Since we had to keep pace, instead of patiently waiting for him, I decided to also shoot in flight. My camera is not perfect for this, since the shutter lag is longer than I would have wished.

While Knowledge panned and took bursts of shots, I decided to concentrate on hovering birds. Beginner’s luck. I had a stroke of that when this black-winged kite (Elanus caeruleus) chose its restaurant. I was on a small cliff, overlooking a stretch of open land, and this was hovering just slightly above eye level. You can see this kite across India and all the way down to Sundaland and southern China on the east, and everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of the Iberian peninsula to the west. Moments after this, the bird swooped down to pick up something. I lost sight of it, but it must have caught something, otherwise it would have come up again to hover.

I noticed that its head had a bit of colour, its eyes were quite dark, and it had dark patterns on it back. An adult would have had red eyes, a pure white head, and no markings on the back. So this was a juvenile, certainly less than two years old. Thanks, Knowledge, for getting me to try out something different.

Spotted, a dabbler

I like watching the Indian spot-billed duck (Anas poecilorhyncha), partly because you don’t have to strain your eyes to see it. It is a large duck, about the size of a mallard, and does not mind swimming in open waters. The yellow-tipped black bill has two orange spots near its base which give it its name. I don’t think I have ever noticed the subspecies which one finds in Myanmar and further east; it is supposed to lack exactly these same orange spots which give it is name. A spot-billed duck without spots!

These photos were taken at Lakhota lake, in the middle of Jamnagar. The wonderful morning light showed me the clear brown eyes of the duck. That’s a detail I don’t see so very often, although the bird can be seen dabbling away in small ponds and lakes all across India. Earlier in the morning, when there was a tiny haze over the water, I’d seen several of them preening. The photo above shows that characteristic flash of green, under a black wing edged in white, which lets you identify the spot-bill even if you can’t see its spots.

Before rapid genetics became easy, there was a confusion between the Indian spot-bill and a closely related species in China and to its east, now called the Eastern spot-bill. Eventually, observers in Hing Kong found that although both species can be seen together, they almost never cross breed. That observation led to the discovery that there are to species, something that molecular genetics now confirms. I love these painstaking field workers, and envy them. They get to spend their days in the sun, watching birds all day, with long breaks in the afternoon and night, perfectly in time for two large meals a day. It’s a wonderful life, in spite of the constant danger of being drained of blood by a friendly neighbourhood mosquito or leech. Some of my gurus in birding live such a life, earning some money by taking amateurs like us on birding trips. They have a bad time now, with the virus keeping them indoors. If the lockdown or even curtailed travel persists for long, say two months or two years, I wonder what happens to them, and a lot of others who are invested in hotels, restaurants, transport, wildlife guides, and so on.

It is sometimes said that spot-bills don’t mix with other ducks. That may be true in some small ponds at some time of the year. As the photo above shows, they have absolutely no trouble mixing with coots. The spot-bill is a dabbler, searching for food just below the surface, snagging minute crustaceans and vegetation in their bills when they upend. They don’t compete for food with divers or skimmers. In a large, reasonably deep body of water, many species always come together. The lockdown gives me an opportunity to go back in time, and arrange my photos. I think I’ll try to find some more photos of the spot-bill.