It was a promising autumn morning. Under the sun-kissed azure sky, Keraniganj – a peri-urban expansion of the capital Dhaka – looked bright. Rich green tall grasses on the mosaic of transient waterbodies within ever-encroaching sand-fills radiated a nature-friendly aura, reminiscent of the heyday of the now-dying Singha and Bangshi – two tributaries of the Buriganga River.
Birds abounded making the best use of better times. I, along with my fellow photographers, was there for the birds – as I had been for years. However, this time, it was for a special bird – the red munia.
Justifying our sacrifice of early morning sleep – and our frenzied attempt at cutting out birding time from busy schedule – a vibrant ruby flash appeared some feet away from where we had hid. It was the male. A pair had been seen making nesting attempts.
When, Where, and How
- The best times to watch munias are monsoon and post-monsoon, when the grasses are greenest
- Riverbanks and sand-fills rich with grasses, or kansh, are the places you will definitely see a munia
- Munias are wary birds; photographing and watching them requires patience. Don't move a muscle around an approaching munia flock!
We raised our eyebrows in astonishment, not just by its sheer beauty, but by seeing the position of its attempted nest – a grass thicket just beside an unpaved road. It was a very unlikely location. The grasses were flourishing everywhere in the seasonal grass-scape of Keraniganj – the pair could have chosen anywhere deeper.
Our cameras went to work with fast bursts and a high-pitched hum of shutters. It is not every day you see a red munia this close in the wild and obviously not in Dhaka.
The estrildid clan
"Are munias a type of finch?" Amid the flurry of munia photography, a question was asked by a fellow photographer. A thoughtful query it was. To him and to the readers, yes, munias can superficially be called finches. However, considering scientific terms, they are assigned to their own grouping – the Estrildidae. Not to Fringilidae, the look-alike seed-eaters considered as true finches nor Emberizidae, migratory buntings. There are no true finches in the wilderness of Bangladesh, but some commoners may present pet aviaries. One difference is that true finches have more glorious tones – Google "Canary Song"! – than estrildid finches.
All six are in town
There are over 100 estrildid finches in the world, only six of which are seen in Bangladesh, the: red munia, scaly-breasted munia, tri-colored munia, chestnut munia, white-rumped munia and Indian silverbill. Most interestingly, each one of them has been sighted in Dhaka. Except for the white-rumped munia, the remaining five are not harder to spot in monsoon periods. Plus, a handful of birders completed this special course – watching all six in Dhaka!
Grasslands are the key
Like typical estrildid finch behaviour, the ecology of all munias revolves around grasslands. Wet mosaics of waterbodies flourishing with grain-bearing plants are some of the best places for this kind. For the same reason, remote riverine sand-beds of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna teem with munia.
A fleeting scene
That day we captured some of the closest moments to a red munia; not experienced by many. The chestnut munia and scaly-breasted munia also posed to our expectations. Content and happy, sun-burnt – and covered with grass fluorescence and dirt – we started packing up around noon. A few hundred meters away, a blaze suddenly commenced – definitely human induced. A hard, bitter truth hit us hard with the burning scent.
These grasslands of urban extensions are temporary – only to make way for new housing plans and residential areas. A similar short period of grass blooms happened in many other places in the city – Banasree is one ideal example. Grassland here might sound like a fable now; it was reality once – at least in my childhood.
So, the future of urban and peri-urban grass patches is not so bright. Their future dismay is sealed. In the short easing periods, they experience rapid cut-downs, burning and intensive grazing.
With the grassland disappearing from the city, so will the munias. Basundhara, Purbachal, North and South Keraniganj will one day only stay in birders' journals as having accounted for munias.
I do not know what promise I can say for the urban munias.
Likely, the last large riverine-grassland mosaics of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin can be a remedy. Few riverine bird sanctuaries can keep these tiny little specialities secure.
We left the place with imaginary solutions.
The munia couple stopped building that nest after two days; perhaps, with a new, resilient, hope deep within sound grass greenery.
Similar to the red munia, the green munia is an estrildid finch with green and yellow on its body. It is endemic to the Indian subcontinent and threatened by the pet trade. Both red and green munia have another common name – avadavat – a corruption of the name the city of Ahmedabad, in Gujarat, India, which was a centre of the bird trade.
An African denizen of the estrildid family, this cordon-bleu is the only bird that lives entirely outside of the Indian Subcontinent, but is assigned with a specific epithet bengalus. The scientist who first discovered it thought the bird originated in Bengal. We now know the truth, but the name bengalus remains.
Of the estrildid clan, the Java sparrow is perhaps the most popular and the easiest to get as a pet. Originating in Java, the species now can be found in many countries, in pet shops and as escapees. With unmistakable grey upper parts, a contrasting pink belly, black head, red eye-ring, pink feet and thick red bill, the Java sparrow is quite a spectacular watch!