A Grey-headed Lapwing left the bank of Balu River in Purbchal and flew by a cumulus cloud as we were preparing to greet our second summer under pandemic.
During the winter we watched hundreds of lapwings saunter along the banks of Turag and Balu Rivers; but never saw one ascend high up in the sky. The first lapwing to do that looked wide-eyed, excited and very pleased with itself. Cheerfully, it is called 'tee-teeit'.
Soon other lapwings started calling 'tee-teeit, tee-teeit' continually; and left the river-banks excitedly. The dusty sky of Purbachal suddenly turned vibrant, sonorous and lively. In a loose, sprawling flock the lapwings flew northeast. They are in breeding colours and their destination, no doubt, is the breeding ground in Manchuria. April to July is the nesting time of Grey-headed Lapwing. It was high time for them to leave Purbachal and commence their long migration through India and China.
Being a flock of single-minded migrants, the lapwings cared nothing about national boundaries and would unflappably cross many bloodstained borders. They have to be in Manchuria now that the summer is there. They wish to fly as far as the northeast of Manchuria to nest in the fields of millet and damp grass. A few of them may even travel farther east to nest in the irrigated rice fields of the northern isles of Japan.
Be at Purbachal or Manchuria, the Grey-headed Lapwing feeds only on worms, insects and mollusks. It strolls in shallow water, wet grass or paddy the whole day looking for those little creatures we hardly ever notice. We have to acknowledge that, after all the mess we made, there are enough of those creatures on the banks of Balu River, an ominously strangled watercourse meandering through Purbachal. The floodplain connected with Turag and Balu Rivers are not completely choked yet; and there are enough worms for lapwings in the surviving pockets of stagnant water.
For thousands of years these lapwings have been thriving on the wetland fed seasonally by the overflowing Balu River which came out of Turag River in Purbachal and went south to merge with Sitalakkya River at Demra. The Purbachal Residential Model Town and Purbchal Express Highway are being built over the dead body of that prolific wetland. No attempt has been made to save any part of the precious habitat of lapwings even as the peoples' recreational area or some relics of the past splendour. A few patches of Sal forest have been saved there; but no sandbar or marshland is left 'undeveloped' by our town planners.
The annual migration of the lapwing between Bengal and Manchuria was going on for thousands of years before human settlements named Dhaka here and Harbin in China existed. The birds flourished on the banks of Balu River in winter and Songhua River in summer long before humans came along to make 'model' cities on the banks of those rivers
The old map of Dhaka shows an abundant wealth of wetlands in its rivers like Padma, Buriganga, Sitalakkya, Dhaleshwari, Ichamati, Bangshi, Turag, Balu, Tongi-khal and Dholai-khal with their tributaries and floodplains. Probably because of the overabundance of water we learnt to treat those wetlands as some impediments to town planning rather than precious natural treasures and the right ambiance of a beautiful township. We have been building Dhaka City by filling, choking and fragmenting most of the prized wetlands. Studies show that in fifty years we have killed more than half of the wetlands of Dhaka. Much of the surviving wetlands are so polluted that not even the worms, insects or mollusks for our lapwing could live there.
What is true for the lapwing in Dhaka City is true for other water-birds as well. It's a very sad saga of fast vanishing wetlands. Not many wetlands are left there for even the most resilient herons and egrets to thrive. The last time we saw a flock of wild goose in the City was the winter of 1988. The spring of 2021 may well be the last time the citizenry had an opportunity to see a flock of Grey-headed Lapwing launch its migration flight.
Grey-headed Lapwing is a very special bird for us Bengali bird-watchers. For millennia, Bengal has been the most favoured winter home of this bird. From Kolkata the bird was first named and recorded as a species. Edward Blyth, the curator of the museum of Asiatic Society of Bengal did that vital scientific work in 1842. He was a prodigious ornithologist with the distinction of classifying the birds that Charles Darwin collected from Galapagos. While dropping names, let me also mention that Dwarakanath Tagore, the grandfather of poet Rabindranath, was a member of the Asiatic Society at the time.
Our journey to the past need not stop at the time when Edward Blyth was studying Grey-headed Lapwing at the Asiatic Society of Bengal two centuries ago. The annual migration of the lapwing between Bengal and Manchuria was going on for thousands of years before human settlements named Dhaka here and Harbin in China existed. The birds flourished on the banks of Balu River in winter and Songhua River in summer long before humans came along to make 'model' cities on the banks of those rivers.
Over time the birds seem to have learned how to share the riverbanks with humans. Humans, however, are yet to learn to share the riverbanks with birds and other wildlife. That is a looming tragedy for the birds as well as the humans.