Monsoon Blues

After a first visit to the country in January (see previous post “In search of the Masked Finfoot”) i made a promise to return soon, this time at a completely different season : Monsoon. Unless you’re in the garment industry there are already seemingly few reasons to visit Bangladesh, and of all seasons you’ll surely get the advice to avoid the monsoon and its livelihood-disrupting torrential rains. Factor in the Ramadan, and i made the bet that i would not meet a single foreigner outside the airport during my 8-days stay : Bingo !

Besides going where nobody goes, there was a purpose to this trip : Monsoon is when the Masked Finfoot breeds and i was keen to witness this critical period for the rare and elusive bird.

Sayam Chowdhury has been studying the Masked Finfoot since 2011, and made dozens of visits to the Sundarbarns, exploring remote creeks in search of the bird and for the first time documenting the breeding ecology of the species, so he and his friend Nazim Uddin where the best, and only, qualified to accompany me in this trip.

Sayam had just made a season-first breeding study trip a week ago and had found an active nest location, so odds were good that i could observe and photograph this one, with the additional chance of finding other active nests.

As the boat approached the nest location on the second day, we noticed a perched Immature Changeable Hawk-eagle nearby and i joked that he was probably planning a raid on the nest. Sure enough, we found the nest empty, and upon checking the data from the camera trap we were dismayed to find clear pictures of the raptor eating each and every of the six eggs just a few days ago. The adult birds were still around and we had brief views of both the male and female birds, but they were shy, and we decided to leave the area as we thought the pair might attempt breeding again.

The following three days we explored countless creeks in various areas revisiting locations where active nests had been found the previous seasons and scouting new ones, but we failed to find any other nest nor observe any other bird.

For all its vastness and remoteness, the Sundarbarns provide livelihood to thousands of Fishermen who criss-cross the rivers and creeks in their wooden boats taking fish, shrimps and crabs, and collecting anything else that can be eaten or sold. Sayam conducted interviews with fishermen a year ago, and half of them admitted having taken Finfoot eggs when finding a nest.

There is no doubt that the Masked Finfoot, an Endangered bird as per IUCN Red List classification, is in need of a dedicated conservation action in the Sundarbarns of Bangladesh, its last stronghold in a previously extensive but fast-vanishing breeding range. The bird’s eggs are just an opportunistic and occasional catch for the fishermen, therefore a sensible education and information campaign should bear some fruits as a first step. Setting-up access restricted full-protection areas would be a better measure in an ideal world, but implementation and enforcement are likely to be lax, making it ineffective.

Weather wise, the much-feared Monsoon turned out to be rather liveable, despite the humidity and the occasional rain storms. Clouds kept the temperature from getting too hot, apart from the last two days on the rivers when skies cleared and made way to searing heat during the day.

The Wildlife was generally shy and less visible than during my winter trip, when visiting waterbirds and passerines added their numbers to the residents. We had an unnerving episode one night, when the captain broke into our cabins and shouted in panic that he just saw a tiger sitting meters from the boat. Gathering torch lamps and courage, we climbed to the deck and torch-lighted around making much noise, but the animal had gone. We hastily decided to pull the anchor and move the boat to another location, and the rest of the night was sleepless for all of us. Revisiting the episode the following morning, the captain admitted that what he saw was probably not large enough for being a tiger, and that it most likely was… a fishing cat. He had a pretty bad day enduring repetitious jokes from the rest of the crew.

The morning before returning to the port of Khulna, and catching our night bus to Dhaka, we made a stop at Karamjal, a patch of forest where a boardwalk allows tourists to safely witness the unique mangrove forest habitat of the Sundarbarns. It is also a good place to see and photograph two local bird specialties : Mangrove Pitta and Ruddy Kingfisher.

With 2 more days in hand in Dhaka before my departure, Sayam and Nazim nicely took me to Gazipur, a countryside area 30km North of Dhaka where Indian Pitta and Orange-headed Thrush are common breeders, we found both species easily and had great photograph opportunities, before the Monsoon finally caught up with me and unleashed its full power most of the last day.


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