Uncommon White Nuns

  • Vikram Jit Singh, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Nov 23, 2014 09:38 IST

Bird guide Jagat Parkash Verma is a local lad who took to bird-watching at Bhindawas Lake, Jhajhar, in 1985. On November 16, 2014, he saw a 'fairish' bird amid a flock of migratory Gadwalls. The bird was very shy and he first thought it to be a migratory, great crested Grebe, as it would repeatedly dive deep.

When Verma - who has rendered a yeoman's service to bird conservation and watching at Bhindawas, and is a protégé of Haryana birdman Suresh C Sharma - got home and checked his books, he realised that the mystery avian was a Smew (also known as a Smee or White nun)!



This duck summer breeds in the northern latitudes of Europe and Asia but is not at all a regular winter visitor to India. It is a 'vagrant' to India, i.e., an individual of a species that is either exploring new locations or has been forced out of its 'normal' ranges by extreme weather events such as storms.

The discovery naturally led to much excitement among birders and some experts. The Bhindawas Smew was initially hailed as a 'true rarity' for the sub-continent and the first record after 1922 for the Delhi region. However, an extensive and ongoing study on 'Indian Rarities' by Praveen J, Rajah Jayapal and Aasheesh Pittie does not label the Smew so.

"In our reviews, Smew is not considered as this species has got more than 10 confirmed records from the country, and does not meet our 'rarity' criteria. Most records (are) from the Northern plains drained by the river systems of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. Exceptions are one from Gujarat and another from Cuttack (Odisha),'' said Praveen. He lists 12 Indian states that bear Smew records. Of these, six Smew specimens are available in Indian museums (such as the BNHS collection), Royal Ontario Museum (Canada) and Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Prior to the Bhindawas sighting, the Smew was observed in successive years since 2008 at Gazaldoba, river Teesta, West Bengal, with the last photograph here on March, 25, 2011, by Arka Sarkar.

Renowned bird guide author Tim Inskipp also cites a male Smew sighting by Per Undeland at the Harike Wildlife Sanctuary, Punjab, on March 24, 1996.




Don't be too taken in by Pintueli Gajjar's rough rider image. This Royal Enfield enthusiast swears she is going to ride till she dies! Based in Rajkot, Gujarat, Pintz is also a sensitive naturalist, poet and photographer. An irrepressible wanderer who traces her family lineage 600 years back to European gypsies, her favourite diamond necklace is a picture she took of a spider's web lined with dew drops. She added another priceless trinket to her jewellery box: a diamond-encrusted brooch! This was a picture she took on a misty morning of a dragonfly caught in a Signature spider's web. Not to forget pearls! In her creative vision, umpteen bushes draped with dew-laden spider webs metamorphosed into pearl strings weighing down the lurking hunters.

Pintz' soul treads very gently while exploring the eternal dilemma of a naturalist-cum-photographer. In her words: "A dragonfly, caught in the web, hanging in mid-air, probably stunned with the diamonds that chilled it to lifelessness. And I wondered, what were its thoughts...probably the last ones, with death almost certain! In that moment of its last breath, it still evoked so many feelings and emotions in me. For a moment, I was tempted to release it, but the naturalist in me would not allow me to tamper with nature - after all, it was the means of survival for another creature. There was a battle raging within me. An artist, glorifying everything that is beautiful and 'God's Creation' and wanting to preserve it as photographic evidence while the naturalist argued that it was disrespectful to disturb anything in nature and to take photographs of someone in distress." Amen!

Pintz also composed verses on the trapped dragonfly, and I quote a poignant excerpt: "Hanging between life & death, Two souls battle, In the weave of nature's breath! As the audience ponders, Destiny's spin, Will death be a loser, Or, will life finally win!"


Butterflies may be angelic beauties that flit from one heavenly bloom to another, but they are proving to be quite a headache for the government-run Zoological Survey of India (ZSI). Hardly had the uproar subsided over a ZSI handbook stealing the common names of hawkmoths, which had originally been coined by three private researchers led by Peter Smetacek, another plagiarism and faulty-science row has erupted.

The secretary of the Lepidopterists' Society of Japan, Saito Motoki, has complained against the publication this year of the book, “Handbook on Butterflies of Arunachal Pradesh” (cover price `3,070), authored by the Dehradun-based senior zoological assistant, ZSI, Parmod Kumar.

Motoki's complaint, which has been forwarded by Smetaceck to ZSI director K Venkataraman, and secretary, union department of science & technology Prof K Vijay Raghavan, states: "This book contains numerous mis-identifications and false explanations. To my surprise, many images had been stolen from the internet. On Bhutanitis lidderdalii, the image is my friend's one from western Myanmar. I am quite surprised to know such a careless book was published without any hesitation."

When contacted over the phone, Kumar admitted "that mistakes have been made in my book." However, Kumar chose to remain silent on the specifics of the complaint forwarded to him for comment via email.

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