In search of the Masked Finfoot

The second leg of my January visit to Bangladesh was an enticing boat trip into the maze of rivers and channels that form the Sundarbarns. Shared between India and Bangladesh (mostly), the Sunderbarns is a vast delta, at the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, which constitutes the largest single block of mangrove forest in the world, estimated at over 4000 km2 (land surface) today (one third of its original size).

With most of the remaining forest now under protection, the Sundarbarns is a haven for wildlife and harbors many endangered species of mammals, birds and reptiles, none of which more fascinating than the Bengal Tiger. Their total number is estimated at 400 to 500 individuals, the largest single block population in the world. In the Sunderbarns, it is however an extremely elusive animal, which is very rarely sighted by visitors.

An outside chance of a tiger sighting is not what brought me to the Sunderbarns, i was after a bird which is just as elusive and probably rarer in numbers than the tiger itself, the Masked Finfoot. It is the Asian representative of a family that comprises only 3 species, and which is still an enigma to the taxonomists, being provisionally placed next to the rails, but resembling perhaps more a large, half-terrestrial grebe.

The Masked Finfoot is an aquatic bird which is tolerant to both coastal and riverine habitats, but requires dense cover on the shores. And it is extremely shy and elusive… its original range probably extended from North-east India to the Sundas throughout most of South-east Asia, but it is now very patchily distributed, and, more alarmingly, sightings of the bird have become very scarce, hence its classification as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List, with a global  population size estimated at 600 to 1700 individuals.

For the keen birdwatcher of the oriental region, the Masked Finfoot has become a highly desirable target, since no reliable stakeout appear to remain. So when an immature bird made a surprise appearance in Singapore 4 years ago, it attracted hundreds of birdwatchers and photographers.

The Sundarbarns are a perfect habitat for the Masked Finfoot, but it’s only 3 years ago when Sayam Chowdhury started to research the area, that tangible data about the bird were revealed. Most importantly, nesting habits were documented for the first time : watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUn-FilJP_Q.

More survey and research is still needed however, in particular to better estimate the total population in the Sundarbarns. And urgent conservation action is needed : most local fishermen interviewed have confessed collecting Masked Finfoot eggs for food when they found a nest…

One thing is sure however, even in the Sundarbarns, the Masked Finfoot is a rare and very elusive bird… in 6 days we found only 2 birds, and only one gave us photography opportunities. It typically forages along the muddy banks of small to medium creeks, and that’s when your best chances of a sighting are. It however climbs the bank for cover as soon as it perceives the boat approaching, and you then have to wait very silently at some distance to allow it to resume its feeding activities.

Besides the finfoot, the fascinating landscape and environment, sightings of other birds (80 species including 6  of kingfishers), mammals (gangetic dolphins, small-clawed otters…) or reptiles (saltwater crocodiles, vine snake) and the secret hope that a tiger would appear after that river bend makes the trip an unforgettable experience. It is relatively easy to organize as well, since a number of local agencies offer Sundarbarns boat trips to the few visiting tourists, usually starting from Khulna (6h by bus from Dhaka).

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