We froze in ankle deep water as soon as a brief and high-pitched whistle 'zeeep' rang out of the right bank of Dhekichora Jhiri. We knew for sure that it was the alarm call of our long anticipated Black-backed Forktail. We were wading in that Jhiri in Lama for some time hoping to see that Forktail - a rare and solitary hill-bird albeit a close cousin of our familiar and companionable Magpie Robin.
The alarm call meant that the invisible Forktail had either seen us or heard us splash our way through the quiet stream well before we could feel its presence there. We stood motionless in the fast flowing water while the floating leaves tickled our legs. If we did not stand still the nervy bird would fly off far upstream or disappear deep into the forest before we could train our binoculars on it.
After a few tense moments we slowly dragged our feet through the shallow water and turned the bend of the Jhiri. And there it was, a handsome Forktail on the bank standing utterly still but ready to take off and disappear in a flash. A precious look at the bird's neat pied body, elegant pink feet and piercing black eyes were certainly worth our perilous walk through the flinty stream by an ethnic village named Dhekichora Para.
Black-backed Forktail is an iconic bird of the fast flowing streams of our hill-districts. It used to be quite easy to find it all over the hills once; but no longer so. Now, the rain-water evaporates too fast because of the reckless deforestation of hills leaving the streams dry and the Forktails hungry in winter. These strange birds feed only on the insects living in the streams flowing in the Himalayan Mountains and their foothills.
The Black-backed Forktail is an exclusive bird of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Thailand. It rarely occurs anywhere else. There are only eight species of birds in the world bearing the name Forktail; and they all live in East Asia besides the Indian subcontinent. We have no idea why these able birds have not colonised many more tropical and temperate hills in other parts of the world.
We were lucky to see at least one handsome Forktail in Dhekichora Jhiri; and luckier still to have it pose for photography for a few precious moments. The light was too low over the Jhiri covered with tall trees and dense thickets. But the generous bird stood perfectly still allowing us to open the aperture wide and get an acceptable image. Well, acceptable only to us; we heard nothing from the bird.
Perhaps the Forktail did not like the hasty shots we took in poor light. It jumped up and landed on a well-lit stone nearby and gave us a second shot at framing its slender body boldly marked in black and white. The only parts of a Forktail's body that are not black and white are its pinkish feet and toes. Being evolved from the dinosaurs, birds usually have ugly feet; but not the Forktail. It has prim, pedicured and pretty feet and toes.
Our modest manners and silent admirations did not stop the Forktail from fleeing us. Merrily it screamed 'zeeep' before taking off the wet stone and flying low over the bubbly water like a black and white arrow twisting and turning as fast as the Dhekichora Jhiri. The Forktail's fleeting flight reminded us of these charming lines of the nineteenth-century American poet, Emily Dickinson:
Delight is as the flight
Or in the ratio of it
Black-backed Forktails are as energetic, roving and jolly birds as the hill-streams they inhabit. They walk, jump, whistle and fly over the fast flowing water the whole day for the sheer pleasure of it and for feeding on a few motley insects wiggling along the banks. In spring they fly up and down the streams hundreds of times a day as part of their courtship ritual.
After the courtship comes the time to make nest, mate, incubate eggs and rear the chicks - a hectic and electrifying time in the lives of male and female Black-backed Forktails. Unlike many hill-birds the male and the female Forktails equally share all household chores. No wonder, they also look very much alike and indistinguishable. Only the young, immature birds with their light black and dull white feathers look different from the adults.
August and September are the months when an immature bird must leave the territory its parents inhabit. In autumn the water level in the streams starts to fall. By then the hungry juvenile has to stop sharing the dwindling food supply with its parents at its birthplace; and go away to find a new stream and start his own reign elsewhere.
It is a challenging and traumatic time for a young Forktail to leave the familiar forest and venture out into the unknown world alone in search of a bountiful stream capable of sustaining him and, hopefully, his future family. It is becoming more and more difficult for a juvenile Forktail to do that on the hills of Bangladesh in the days of creeping deforestation.
We saw no immature Forktail in the streams while trekking in the hills for five days. We hope that they are there somewhere flying and frolicking along some streams beyond the little land we had trekked in Lama. We do not wish to think that they are not there at all.
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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