Dhaka Metropolis, like the twine ball from scary bedtime stories, is ever-expansive. In all directions, her rims—to make rooms for people, promise and development—are engulfing everything from villages to village groves, rice fields to rural lifestyles, and wetlands and waterbodies. New cities and model towns are declared in their stead. Ever visited any of these peri-urban fringes of Dhaka: Purbachal, Keraniganj or Aftabnagar? There are a few Dhakaites, if not any, who have not been there yet. Now, the season is ripe.
In mid-September, a fall bloom (called Kansphool in Bangla) occurs. Tall seasonal grasses, each stalk about 10 feet high, produce foot-long brushy stalks full of white flowers, properly termed fluorescence.
The spreads, layers of green and white, resonating with autumn breeze under cotton clouds and azure blue sky, are not a regular phenomenon in city life. To some, it appears like a snow carpet; to others, a sea of white. The magnitude parallels cherry blossom on a wholesome scale. It lasts about a month and, nearest to Dhaka takes place in empty plots cleared and sand-filled for future model towns.
The whole bird-watching and wildlife photography community of Bangladesh track this bloom spell. It offers some of the easiest means to encounter munias, a close relative of finches, all six types of them can be found in Bangladesh. Often, there are buntings, another type of finch-like bird and rarer.
Bird photography or sightseeing–whatever the cause alluring you–ever wonder why these grasses grow there? And, why do you never see any cattle munching on them?
The grass spreads are water-loving and grow near the edges of large water bodies. The sandbars networks of big riverways are their favourite. But, in model towns under construction, there is no river within. But you will find one within a 5 to 10 km radius. At Keraniganj, near the Basundhara Model Town, there is the Singha and Bangshi, the tributaries of Buriganga. At Purbachal, there is the Balu; at Uttara, the Turag.
The areas were once dominated by rivers. These riverine ecosystems, in time, gave in as freshwater wetlands are the easiest lands to convert. Fill a chunk with sand, put up a fence, and divide it into smaller areas called plots. Do good marketing. You get a new city. Dhaka is extended.
The grass blooms on their ancestral land. And they are extremely resilient.
Sharing the same Saccharum genus with sugarcane, Kansphool itself is a type of wild sugarcane. They are toxic and grow long leaves that are blade sharp—thus, they are deemed unpalatable to cattle. In a healthy and wild grassland ecosystem, there exists a healthy admixture of palatable and unpalatable grasses. When it is heavily grazed or experiences disturbance, only the tougher grasses thrive. The white bloom you see all belong to Kansphool.
''To the south, there was a vast wet grassland named Kamrangir Char, dense, home to water buffaloes and leopard,'' says the book Environment of capital Dhaka recalling Dhaka from a couple of centuries back. Kansphool does not grow anymore in Kamrangir Char. Yet, one who has seen its bloom can understand how dense and compact these tall grasses can grow. Birds make the best use of this secure refuge. The small seeds following after the bloom and the critters in the tall grasses offer platters for many. Small birds attract large birds, and they, in turn, call in jackals and cats. A secondary ecosystem starts functioning. Munias fit there very well.
Are munias a type of finch? Yes, munias can superficially be termed finches. But, in scientific terms, they have a separate family– the Estrildidae, not to Fringillidae, the look-alike seed-eaters considered as true finches, and Emberizidae, the migratory buntings.
There are over 100 estrildid finches in the world; only six of which are seen in Bangladesh: Red munia, scaly-breasted munia, tri-coloured munia, chestnut munia, white-rumped munia and Indian silverbill; all six are resident in Bangladesh. Most interestingly, each one of them has been sighted in Dhaka. And a handful of birders completed this special course–watching all six and watching all in Dhaka!
Munias love grass seeds and grains. Thus, wet grasslands are some of the best places for any seed-eating birds. Any remote riverine sand-bed of the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna always teems with munia. For the same reason, you will also see weavers there. Both still use peri-urban, vestigial grasslands.
There are no true finches in the wilderness of Bangladesh, but they are common in pet aviaries. Some escapees, like the red-cheeked cordon-bleu and the red bishop, are often spotted in urban grasslands, originally from Africa.
The red munia, the males being solid strawberry red and polka-dotted with white, is the most beautiful and most sought-after of all munias. I can recall one afternoon at Keraniganj. A pair of red munia, perhaps nesting for the first time in their life, was building a nest exceptionally close to an earthen road. We got some very close and detailed photos of the striking male.
There was another day. At Aftabnagar, I spent a morning, soon becoming sun-burnt, showered with grass fluorescence and covered in dirt but not before closely observing a mixed flock of black-headed munia, tri-coloured munia, red munia and Indian silverbill. Last year, at Aftabnagar, many of my fellow photographers photographed red munia less than 10 feet away.
But, the future of urban and peri-urban grass patches is not so bright. The unpalatable Kansphool can do nothing about being mowed down. In recent years, these patches are experiencing rapid cut-downs and burning–at times, even before the bloom starts or fully finishes. Against random burning treatment, other than being roasted, birds have little else to do.
Then comes the ultimate truth. One day, buildings will be erected in now empty plots. Their number increases everywhere with every passing year. It is said that three-fourths of Aftabnagar is yet to be constructed. The sky and earth of Keraniganj are now pierced by an elevated expressway and pitched road.
With the city growing, munias have to shift to somewhere else. The present Basundhara, Purbachal and Keraniganj will one day only stay in naturalists' memoirs and photographs—in an eerie similarity to how past glories of Dhaka are now cooped up in black and whites.
I don't know what promise I can say for the urban munias.