Our day at Baikka Beel sanctuary started happily with a handsome Snipe staring at us from a pool by the road. We had pulled up silently to watch that watchful bird from inside our dingy vehicle. On that chilly morning, fortunately, ours was the only vehicle on the narrow road leading to the sanctuary gate.
The suspicious Snipe stood frozen to assess our vehicle as a possible threat. We kept our fingers crossed and hoped the car, with no history of harming a bird, would pass the assessment. Dewdrops over the sparse grass on the mud-bank behind the bird glowed like some precious jewels from the heavens.
We were very pleased when the Snipe decided to ignore the vehicle and started probing into the mud for food. And soon, a second Snipe joined in and started probing together. Being cocooned in the vehicle we did not have to placate our excitement and exhilaration. We also brandished our cameras boldly.
The Snipes are awfully shy and stealthy birds. Their cryptic feathers keep them undetectable on the bare ground and in the scrub. They take great care to stay immobile and undetectable on the ground, often allowing oblivious people to pass them close by. They flee only when they think that people have seen them.
The long beaks of the two Snipes went on probing in the shallow water like the needles of sewing machines. We loved watching their squat, mottled bodies moving up and down in tandem; but could not see what they were eating. We hoped that there were enough worms in the mud for the two to feed on.
The two Snipes had their eyes trained on our car although their minds were on the worms. They did not need their eyes to search for and select their food. The sensitive and flexible tips of their beaks were perfect for those jobs. Their goggle eyes were kept free to keep a tab on predators on the ground and in the sky.
We assumed that the two birds were the ubiquitous Common Snipes; not their look-alike cousins named Pintail Snipe and Swinhoe's Snipe. Those two cousins have a darker underwing, shorter tail and slightly shorter bills. The Common Snipe is truly common and widespread in Asia, Africa and Europe.
We found a few more Snipes feeding in the fertile mud-field within Baikka Beel sanctuary. They started scurrying away as the mist cleared and some boisterous visitors began to swarm along the water-front for selfies. The ducks swam farther afield; the egrets walked afar; and many shorebirds flew to the other bank.
A few Snipes took off with sharp notes: 'chag, chag, chag'. These notes are, perhaps, the origin of the bird's Bangla name 'Chaga'. The English fancifully transliterated these notes as: 'scape, scape scape'. These piercing notes also confirmed that the birds were Common Snipes. The other Snipes take off silently or give a shorter note.
The Common Snipe is also called a 'flying-goat' in several languages in Europe because during its courtship flights the male makes a sound like the bleating of a goat. The male makes that strange whirring sound not by using its vocal cords; but by the vibration of its tail feathers as it dives through the air as proven by a scientist.
We never hear those bleating sounds at Baikka Beel or anywhere else in Bangladesh because no Snipe ever cares to commence its courtship in the tropical region. The Snipes breed in cooler climes extending from temperate wet meadows up to the Taiga and edge of the Tundra in Asia and Europe.
A few Snipes flew over Baikka Beel in a zig-zag path to land at the edge of the water. That's the typical flight pattern of the Common Snipe. The other Snipes usually take shorter flights with fewer calls to avoid detection. The Common Snipes take sharper evasive turns, perhaps, because during take-off they draw attention by screaming.
The crowd of visitors to the sanctuary grew by the hour. We heard a visitor wonder loudly that there were not very many birds in the sanctuary. Through our telescopes we continued to watch and count large flocks of birds feeding or floating quietly at the far end of Baikka Beel. In their turn the birds made no comments about us or the visitors.
We continued to stay at the sanctuary through the sunset and watched the Starlings and the Weavers flying in to roost on the Koroch Trees. Night is a good time for the Snipes to feed; and they would continue to feed after sunset on the bank of Baikka Beel. They could also spend the night comfortably on the mud and in the wet grass. They know how to hide, blend in and stay invisible in such places.
We tried to see the scrubland on the bank of Baikka Beel through the eyes of the illustrious nature-lover and English poet-laureate Ted Hughes. In a poem titled 'Moors' he said that such places 'are a stage for the performance of heaven'; and there 'any audience is incidental'. In his words it is an:
Escape from a world
Where snipe work late.
So far, the shrewd Snipes with their wonderful camouflage plumages have done well at feeding, roosting and breeding on the ground - places now largely overtaken by people and their animals. They may not, however, do as well at many places in future. Recently Snipe populations have been falling alarmingly in a number of countries, including Bangladesh.
We need to save at least a few protected places such as Baikka Beel where Snipes can work late and go to sleep on the ground fearlessly in the wee hours. The sanctuary would be quite a bit less colourful to many like us if no Snipe showed up there on the misty mornings of the winter months.
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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