Hundreds of Godwits dropped like some feathered missiles out of the morning sky over Chatainna beel of Tanguar haor. We were confounded by the urgency and speed with which they descended. We worried that the birds would hit the ground hard with only a foot of water to cushion their formidable fall.

But the Godwits knew what they were doing and how to prove our forebodings inapt. They simply spread their wings to recover from the steep dive and fluttered like butterflies before landing. The thin layer of freshwater over the beel's floor was what they needed to wash their rusty grey feathers and pointed pink bills.

Last night an untimely squall pushed the water level of the haor a foot higher making the bugs and beetles wiggle and emerge all over the bogs. The Godwits spent the entire night furiously feeding on the bugs at Bagmara and other beels. In the morning, they needed less food than shower before taking their long awaited snooze.

Flocks of Godwits from the bogs were descending on the shallow water of Chatainna beel as the sun peered through the Koroch trees standing still on the bank or Kanda. Only Chatainna had the right level of water for the birds to shower; all other beels had either too much or too little.

The Godwits leapt, frisked and frolicked in palpable pleasure as soon as they landed in the water on their long rickety legs. The quickly rising sun egged the birds on by creating blobs, strokes and circles of light on the reedy shards of water with magnificent inventiveness.

An observer whispered, "Godwit appears, and he is light!" The good man was reciting from William Blake's numinous poem 'Auguries of Innocence' by fancifully replacing the poet's 'God' with 'Godwit'. The great poet would, perhaps, not have disliked that spin if he could delight in the sights we were seeing.

Enthralled we watched thousands of gregarious Godwits exuberantly showering, sunning and babbling with delightful abandon. They lived the moments as if no war was going anywhere on the planet and no global warming was menacing anyone on earth. Even we forgot, for some time as we watched the birds.

Two Godwits left the beel and flew overhead in a circle for no obvious reason but to show us how spick and span they were after the hearty shower. A young birdwatcher wondered, "Is it a dandy young male chasing a female!" We were not sure. Haor was not the right place and March was not the right month for the Godwits to commence their courtship.

The two birds flying overhead did look a little different from each other. Usually, the Godwit female is about 50 grams heavier than the male and has a noticeably longer bill. The two fresh-looking Godwits could easily be a male and a female on their initial flights to explore the prospect of forming a pair-bond.

Godwits are known to form a monogamous pair-bond for life, lasting about 25 years. Although in the non-breeding period the pairs may split and disperse over the six continents of the earth, the faithful couples promptly find one another as they return to their breeding ground.

Like our Baya Weaver, an unpaired male Godwit prepares several nests at the breeding ground and awaits a female to like a nest and, in effect, the owner. The courtship flight begins as soon as the female chooses a nest which is a mere scrape on the ground, nothing as impressive as the master-work of the Baya.

Our young birdwatcher friend suggested that the Godwits probably commence their courtship rituals in February-March well before going to their breeding ground. We could not give him a nod just because we saw a single pair of Godwits fly over our heads at Chatainna beel. We were not that young.

There are a lot of things we do not know about the Godwits. We know that the Bar-tailed Godwit holds the world record for the longest non-stop flight; but do not know how the bird can undertake a flapping flight for nine days and nights without sleeping, eating and drinking.

We also do not know why the population of the sturdy Black-tailed Godwit is falling. We know that out of every ten chicks that fly out of the breeding ground in Tundra seven perish before beginning to reproduce. But we do not know what has been hurting the Godwits giving them the Near-threatened status globally.

Godwit meat used to be considered a delicacy in Europe once; 'the daintiest dish in England' as Sir Thomas Browne once wrote. Now it is different; yet not too different. Although the European Commission has management plans for Godwits, hunting is permitted in a number of EC countries. About 8,000 Godwits are killed annually in France alone.

The number of Godwits at the Padma-Jamuna estuary has been growing smaller over the two decades we have been counting waterbirds in Bangladesh. We suspect that the poisonous run-off from our agriculture has affected those mud-flats, and the birds have been poisoned by foraging there.

We have no estimate of the damage our chemical pesticides and herbicides have been doing to the environment. A large number of Godwits and other shorebirds used to feed on the bugs and insects in the paddy fields of the coastal villages once. We see a much smaller number of them do that now.

We are yet to study the effects on the birds that forage in our paddy fields packed with chemicals. Our discourse on the conservation of birds is centred on how to prevent hunting and trapping, and yet to start investigating the effect of poisons we add to their habitats.

A young birdwatcher may enjoy the courtship flights of the last group of Godwits at Tanguar haor now but not foretell their future as the agro-chemicals encroach deeper into the haor basin every year.

Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam.

First Published in The Business Standard

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