At the end of our daylong hike, we were delighted to see a bluish-green shape on the monotonous grey mud-bank of a derelict canal in Bhangura town. A dark and squat bird was hiding in plain sight! We guessed it could be a Green-backed Heron standing still to stay unnoticed.
The old tributaries of Baral River were cut into pieces by road, rail and bazaar, and apparently, the stealthy Green-backed Heron was still able to make a living there. We stood still to steal a look at the stealthy bird and give a respite to our tired legs.
Thankfully, the stocky Green-backed Heron completely ignored our presence on the bank and stayed doggedly stuck to its ground at the edge of the water. On that searing evening hour, we were the only people on the road, and the good bird did not seem to consider us a big threat.
Although it is not really a rare bird, one has to be quite lucky to spot a Green-backed Heron anywhere on earth. It is as widespread as the Pond Heron in Bangladesh, though not as numerous. Moreover, it is too stealthy and too well camouflaged a bird to be seen easily.
The Green-backed Heron has covered much of the globe the way few species of birds could. It lives in every continent of the world except Antarctica and many islands south of the Tropic of Cancer. It also lives in some northern islands, such as Japan, where it is known as 'Sasagoi'.
Green-backed Heron is known to the world as an ingenious tool-user. It is known to drop small leaves, feathers or scraps of food on the surface of the water to attract fish. Such curious use of baits by the Heron to lure the fish has been recorded in many places in America, but we are yet to see the Herons do that in Bangladesh.
The use of the tool may well be unknown to the Green-backed Herons that live in our parts of the world. By living isolated on distant continents and far-flung islands, the Herons have developed many diverse traits. Worldwide they are not really the true copies of one another anymore.
Scientists have already split the Green-backed Heron into three separate species. The Heron of the isolated Galapagos Islands has been renamed Lava Heron and is considered one of the islands' endemic birds. The Heron living in the Americas has been named Striated Heron now. The one living across the other four continents of the world, the one we have, is renamed Green Heron, which is yet to enter our bird-books.
The blue-green feathers of the Green-backed Heron became less distinctive in the mud-bank as the sun sank behind the tree line. The gritty Heron stressed its neck to bring its dagger-like bill to the water's edge, perhaps, wanting to stab a fish. Through the tender shoots of water-weeds, we could see its eyes glowing in anticipation.
The Heron stayed in that awkward position for quite a while as we held our breath and prayed for its success. The great nature-poet Ted Hughes had surely seen a heron poised to harpoon an unfortunate fish in England many times in the past century. In a poem titled 'The Heron' he wrote on behalf of the Heron:
I am nothing
But a prayer
To catch a fish
A hush of air
A bloom of cloud
On a tilting stalk
The prayer of the Heron at the Bhangura wetland was heard. With a single stab, the Heron picked up a flailing fish and held it up in the air, maybe, for us to see and photograph. The fish struggled and gasped for some time at the beak of the persevering Heron. Then the Heron, without much ado, swallowed the dying fish head first.
The gratified Heron continued to stand poised at the edge of the water after devouring the fish. Possibly he was not willing to consider that little fish his last meal of the day. The sun had set, and the mud-bank turned too dark for us to see the Heron's next hunt. We had to move on.
Green-backed Herons are better at hunting at twilight hours when they can clearly see the silver-scaled fish swimming in the inky water, but the fish can see nothing of the dark heron. We have seen the Green-backed Herons fishing on moonlit nights in the Sundarban. With the incoming tide there, the hungry fish wiggles in at midnight only to be greeted by the hungry Herons.
A good population of Green-backed Heron of Bangladesh lives in the Sundarban and the other coastal areas with mangroves. These sneaky Herons live in every other type of wetlands, including the expansive haor basin, but not in big numbers. It was good to see that the bird was doing fine in the fragmented wetlands of Bhangura.
After a few months, the Heron could conceivably breed in the homestead gardens or bamboo groves around those wetlands. These shy birds do not usually join the noisy breeding colonies of other herons and egrets. They live solitary lives and nest quietly in the groves.
While trooping away from the wetland, we wished the gritty Heron a very successful fishing and robust life. We surely would like to see him there when we visit the Bhangura town again.