A Cinnamon Bittern flew overhead as soon as we started our walk through Purbachal New Town at sunrise. Forecast of a rain-free morning encouraged us to take up the walk after being cocooned for weeks under lockdown.
The relaxed flight of a rare bird at the very outset of our hike cheered us up and made us hopeful of a rewarding stroll ahead. We were walking through a stretch of grassland with marshes and mires waiting to be filled, flattened and packaged as residential plots.
Soon a second Cinnamon Bittern flew in and cackled stridently at the other bittern flying slowly in a circle. The newcomer pursued the calmly flying bittern who seemed not only unafraid of the open-mouthed pursuer but quite pleased to be chased that way.
The animated chase was clearly a part of the courtship rituals rather than a belligerent territorial dispute between two bitterns. We were lucky to have been treading on the last breeding ground of Cinnamon Bittern in Purbachal.
In spite of its eye-catching cinnamon color the Cinnamon Bittern is not an easy bird to spot. It usually sits hunched and takes great care to remain completely hidden in the grass. It aspires to stay immobile and remain invisible to its prey and predators alike. For hours it sits at a bog hoping for a frog, lizard, snake or fish to come within its stabbing range.
The Cinnamon Bittern does not fly away even when the predators or other trouble-makers like us come near. Instead of moving away, it stretches its neck perpendicularly to merge with the surrounding stems of grass, reed etc. Its object is to remain frozen and indiscernible till a determined enemy approaches dangerously close. Only at the very last moment it gives up mimicking the straws and shoots up in the air to escape.
Along with other bitterns, herons and egrets the Cinnamon Bittern has lived on the floodplain of Turag and Balu rivers for centuries. Only in recent years our town planners have undertaken the work of dredging down the rivers to elevate the floodplain and create a new township here. And the job of that transfiguration has been done ruthlessly enough to leave nearly no trace of the ancient floodplain and its wild inhabitants.
We tend to look at the creation of this immense new town on an uninhabitable wetland as a welcome expansion of our overcrowded capital. But the sweeping conversion of a biodiversity-rich floodplain could not be seen equally forgivingly by the bitterns and their kin that have lived here for generations. It might well be equally unacceptable to the future residents of the new town who would probably wish to live more in harmony with nature than we do today.
The Purbachal Township has kept very little of the olden floodplain unaltered. The surviving blue spaces, i.e. rivers, tributaries and swamps are severely altered, trained, dammed and polluted. The green spaces are all eliminated except for a few patches of Sal groves. Someday, the town will probably create fake green spaces like our Ramna Park or Suhrawardy Udyan for hordes of crows but no Cinnamon Bittern to dwell in.
We felt sorry for the future residents of Purbachal who would never see the courtship flights of the superb Cinnamon Bittern in their neighborhood. If the future citizens do turn out to be more the lovers of nature than we are today then surely they would miss the Cinnamon Bittern and other wonderful residents of the floodplain.
If we learn anything from the modern cities of the world we should be able to foretell that our future citizens would like to encounter more and more wildlife in their cities. They would expect to see in their neighborhood more green, blue and wild spaces. The future residents of Purbachal will probably not look forgivingly upon us for creating a town for them from wilderness without keeping any wild space where magnificent birds like Cinnamon Bittern and other interesting wildlife could live.
Cinnamon Bittern is a rare bird of Bangladesh; and it does not exist outside the Orient. Although native to the subcontinent the bird, just like the Cinnamon tree, is not abundant here. The rarity of the bird is explained by its low population and its natural propensity to remain hidden.
Few people are familiar with the Cinnamon Bittern even in the countryside and at its stronghold, the haor basin. In our city it is a very rare bird and an encounter with it easily makes a birdwatcher's day. We suspect that none of our town planners has been a birdwatcher. Then there would probably be some attempts to save a part of the habitats of this unusual bird of wonderful cinnamon feathers.
The Bangali birdwatchers of the past century named this bird Lak Bok, meaning red heron; although it is neither red nor a true heron. Thanks to the Encyclopedia of Flora and Fauna of Bangladesh the bird is now called Daruchini Bogla, meaning cinnamon bittern, a richly deserved tribute to its magnificent cinnamon color.
We were more than pleased to see the two rare bitterns carry on with their courtship at Purbchal while the earth-movers worked elsewhere. Courtship, however, is only the beginning of a big endeavor called procreation which involves nest-making, egg-laying, incubation and chick-rearing with myriads of risks associated at every step. We hope this couple will persevere all the way through and successfully raise a chick or two this autumn. They are not likely to have a go at it in Purbachal next year.