We could not help but wonder how the fledgling had reached Purbachal so far ahead of its regular migration season and where its family members are

We could not believe our eyes when a lone baby lapwing came out of a thorny bush in Purbachal. It looked like a freshly fledged Grey-headed Lapwing in every detail. But in mid-September, the fledglings should be at the breeding ground in Manchuria, not at their winter home in Bangladesh!

Through a thin shroud of morning mist, we continued to watch the nervous fledgling in disbelief and amazement. The edgy little bird walked gingerly towards the bush we hid behind. We looked close and long; did not doubt that it was indeed a very young Grey-headed Lapwing.

The skinny little bird did not have the deep-brown body, grey head, red-eye or dark breast-band of an adult Grey-headed Lapwing. But its conical body, black-tipped yellow bill and black primary-feathers hidden under the light-grey mantle left no doubt in our minds about its identity.

We could not help but wonder how the fledgling had reached Purbachal so far ahead of its regular migration season and where its family members are! We had never seen a Grey-headed Lapwing in September in Bangladesh and rarely encountered one roaming alone.

Typically, these lapwings live their entire lives in flocks. Several hundred of them lived in the Corona-quietened Purbachal last winter. That flock initiated the migration flight to Manchuria from the Balu River in April. And we had the good fortune to watch and chronicle that spectacular event (TBS, 1 May 2021).

We hoped to see that flock return to Balu River again in the coming winter. The lonely fledgling at Purbachal raised our expectations of an extraordinary early arrival. We trudged the banks of all rivers and canals in Purbachal, looking for the flock. We found no Grey-headed Lapwing there or anywhere else.

Soon we realised that the lone fledgling we saw on the grassland in Purbachal was the only Grey-headed Lapwing in Dhaka. Moreover, it could well be the only one in Bangladesh since we received no report of the sighting of any other Grey-headed Lapwing anywhere in the country by that time.

We wondered how lonely the life must be for that little lapwing on that grassy field marked for human ownership! The only other birds frequenting those fields were cantankerous starlings and egotistic doves. They were not much of a company for a newly fledged lapwing.

The lonely fledgling looked utterly lost and edgy. It watched the grazing cattle with suspicion and looked up to the sky often. Foraging birds have to watch the sky to guard against the aerial attacks by falcons. And in a flock, the job is shared. But being alone, the poor fellow had to do the vigil single-handedly the whole day.

Our clandestine attempts to study the innocent abroad ended abruptly when a villager walked by, and the alarmed fledgling took off. With great admiration, we saw the raised pair of freshly minted wings that brought him from the farthest end of Asia in the Pacific Ocean to this well-hidden Gangetic delta.

Gangetic delta and the coast of southern India are the farthest places the Grey-headed Lapwings migrate to when the short summer ends at their birthplaces in Manchuria and the northern isles of Japan. On their migrations to and fro, the lapwings never think of straying out of the Orient.

For millions of years, the Gangetic delta has been the Grey-headed Lapwings' home for the dry season. As Ganga routinely overflowed in monsoon, the birds left the waterlogged delta and migrated to the drier and safer ground in Manchuria to breed. Along with freshly fledged chicks, the lapwings returned to the delta when the monsoon waned.

Grey-headed Lapwings carried on with that annual migration between Manchuria and Bangladesh for ages before the cities like Harbin and Dhaka emerged there. When the cities took over the lapwing land, the loyal birds did not give up the ancestral property and explored beyond the Orient.

The lapwings continued to live by the banks of Songhua River in the wet season and Balu River in the dry season. But their population plummeted as the breeding and feeding areas were plundered and polluted by the land-hungry humans at both ends of the Orient.

In the perennial struggle for survival, however, the Grey-headed Lapwing has not fared as poorly as some other birds, such as our River Lapwing. After all, the Grey-headed Lapwing does not need much for its existence. All it wants is a few obscure insects to feed on and a tiny scrap of land to build its nest on.

In all probability, the lonely fledgling of Purbachal had hatched from an egg in Manchuria only a few weeks before he winged across the entire Orient to be in Bangladesh. A fledgling is capable of taking the migration flight unaccompanied; but not likely to survive the many hazards lurking on the long and treacherous flight path.

We could claim with some confidence that the fledgling seen at Purbachal was the only Grey-headed Lapwing to arrive in Bangladesh in mid-September. But we could not say whether he winged his way all alone or in a flock of family members and neighbours.

Maybe, the fledgling did fly in a flock, the members of which gave in to the death-traps strewn thru the way; and he was the lone lucky survivor.

We can only imagine what incredible stories of hardship, misfortune, grief and propitious escape are hidden in the deep dark eyes and the innocent baby-face of the fledgling!

Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam.

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