The Enigmatic Thick-knee
Whenever I hear "Thick-knee" I think of Majeda Haq, birder, conservationist and friend who left this world too soon in 2019.
In 2016 I had just started exploring the world of birds. I was trying to find a way to visit Tanguar haor, but it was hard to get to and harder still to find a place to stay. Late that winter, Majeda invited me to join her and her husband Enam Ul Haque, the eminent birder and founder of Bangladesh Bird Club, on a trip to Tanguar. I readily agreed.
The trip was pivotal in my birding life. I saw many new birds in an insanely beautiful setting, got to know Enam Bhai and other birders and spent three nights on a comfortable launch that took us from Sunamganj to the Haor via the Surma river.
On our way back, we were on a narrow tributary when one of the birders on deck started shouting "Thick-knee! Thick-knee! Thick-knee!" while pointing to a white spot far on the green riverbank. I had never heard of this bird and didn't understand what the commotion was about. But Majeda sprang into action. She asked the captain to turn the boat around (we had already passed the bird at this point) and got a dinghy ready for us. We rowed the dinghy to about a hundred feet behind the bird. Then we disembarked behind Majeda and crouched along the riverbank towards the bird.
Coming closer, I saw a bird unlike any other. Its eyes were extraordinary: large, bulging, and banded by several bars. Its beaks looked formidably stout. I was able to get some photographs before it flew off.
The bird was a Great Thick-knee, a rare bird of Bangladesh.
Thick-knees, also known as Stone-curlews, belong to the bird family Burhinidae, comprising nine species. They are found in Asia, Europe, Australia, Africa and South America. The name "Thick-knee" comes from their wobbly knees. Their choice of barren, stony places for domicile, and the resemblance of their calls to the Curlew's, gives them their alternate name. Mostly terrestrial birds, they take short flights when necessary. Their tough beaks enable them to eat any number of items: from insects to small mammals to marine creatures such as mollusks. They are active at twilight and night and their large eyes help them see in the dark.
Since that day in Sunamganj I have seen Thick-knees on several occasions, but never the Great Thick-knee. On the chars of the Padma in Rajshahi lives the Indian Thick-knee, a smaller bird found among the short, stubby bushes growing in the chars. It had the distinctive bulging eyes like its larger cousin.
In Australia, I saw Thick-knees (known there as Bush Stone-curlews) in remote parts of city parks. In Darwin, two Thick-knees appeared more accustomed to humans and therefore less shy. Their long legs and wobbly knees lent them an awkward look. As they watched me approach they looked a little confused and went behind a rock. When I stopped at a safe distance, they reappeared, standing close to each other while facing me.
But no matter how many times I see them, Thick-knees remain enigmatic and mysterious birds to me.
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