When I first heard about the water-bird census, I thought “Counting birds? What an impossible task!” Yet every year, the water-birds at selected wetlands of Bangladesh are painstakingly counted by our dedicated birders. The data gives us insight into the state of our environment and connects us to a broader global picture. For example, it tells us about species that might be growing or declining in numbers.
The wetlands in Bangladesh that are counted include Hakaluki Haor, Baikka Beel, Tanguar Haor, Jahangirnagar University and the coastal belt.
Hakaluki is the largest haor in Bangladesh. In Moulvi Bazar district, it consists of numerous beels (lakes) large and small. Its winter area of forty-four square kilometres quadruples during monsoon. For census purposes, the massive haor was divided into six sections which three teams covered in two days.
Thus it was that I found myself at Hakaluki early one winter's morning with a group of Bangladesh Bird Club volunteers led by eminent birder and naturalist Enam Ul Haque. The cold Haor light was suffused by the thin fog that lingered under the overcast sky. When the sun finally broke through the clouds, it was a sight to behold.
We started at Tekuni Beel and made our way around nine beels during the day. Wherever we saw one or more birds on the water, a counter counted them with a telescope. Members of each species were counted separately and the data was recorded. Other birds dependent on the water-birds - for example, raptors such as Harriers and Eagles - were also counted.
To be a counter one must be able to identify the species from afar. You can tell by the outline, by the way they float, by the size and of course colour.
Standing on ground that goes fifteen feet underwater in monsoon I observed a variety of foliage around me. Lippita plants with delicate lavender flowers and scented leaves surrounded us. Among the other plants was Bengal Wild Rose, a variety that can survive underwater.
The Haor's fields are good grazing grounds for cows and water-buffaloes. Some were brought from a long distance, their rakhals camping here the duration of winter. Sometimes flocks of Cattle Egret followed the cattle feeding on insects stirred up by the hooves.
Occasionally, a Bengal Bush Lark shot up high from the bush and flew in circles singing loudly. Once its song ended, it dropped like a stone back to the bush.
After the census was completed, Haque said the team counted 23041 water-birds belonging to sixty species in forty-two beels. Gadwalls were the most populous at 3,162. Among rare birds, a Baer's Pochard, two Painted Storks, three Glossy Ibises and seven Falcated Ducks were seen. The most birds – 1982 - were seen at Pingla Beel.
While the census of our other wetlands revealed higher bird populations this year, the Hakaluki population was much less than normal. Reasons for the decline are unclear, but the discovery of many dead birds by the volunteers may offer a clue. Possible poisoning by poachers could have driven away many birds in addition to killing others.