We were thrilled to spot a hefty red-and-brown bird sitting atop a dead Gewa Tree at the confluence of a narrow channel branching off southwards from the Harbaria Khal. The watchful bird flew into the forest as soon as our boat veered right to enter that channel. We knew that the distinctive bird was a Brown-winged Kingfisher; and expected it to show up again in the channel.
We were confident of bumping into the Brown-winged Kingfisher again because it lived in narrow channels like the one we were taking. It loves to sit on the branches of Mangrove by the muddy banks of the narrow channels called Khal or Bharani. We cannot think of a Sundarban tour without an encounter with this matchless bird, the largest kingfisher of Bangladesh.
Sundarban also has the largest population of Brown-winged Kingfisher in the world. The chunky kingfisher lives solely in the Mangrove; and is found only in the Mangroves of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand. That is no good news for the long-term survival of this bird, especially when people have been invading the mangrove of this region ruthlessly.
The global population of the Brown-winged Kingfisher has been falling; and it has become a Near Threatened species of the world. In Bangladesh, it is one of the 16 birds regarded as Vulnerable. It has, however, not been doing as poorly as the other iconic bird of Sundarban, the Masked Finfoot has been categorised Endangered; and may soon be Critically Endangered.
Mangrove, the only habitat a Brown-winged Kingfisher calls its home, has been dwindling over the past 50 years. Unfortunately, the Mangrove grows on thin slices of inter-tidal mudflat at the coast; and not as a dense forest with the only exception of Sundarban. A lot of coastal Mangroves in Malaysia and Thailand were destroyed as the salt-pans, shrimp-farms etcetera proliferated.
Bangladesh and India have done less damage to the Mangrove of the Sundarban, thanks to the presence of man-eaters there. Human encroachment into our part of Sundarban has been slow and timid because of the hazards the tigers posed to people living off the resources of the Mangrove. Another barrier to human invasion is salinity; the dearth of drinkable water in Sundarban.
Astonishingly, the people of Bangladesh have managed to extend the Mangrove belt along the coast by planting seedlings, a blessing for our Mangrove loving kingfishers. The primary purpose of the green belt of Mangrove along the coast is to act as a barrier to cyclones and tidal surges. There is no reason why it should also not serve as a decent habitat for Brown-winged Kingfishers.
We have already seen Brown-winged Kingfishers in the planted Mangroves in Bangladesh. The colonisation of the new Mangrove is necessary for their survival. With an ever-growing boat-traffic through the major rivers, a good part of Sundarban is becoming too polluted to serve as their home. Now the kingfishers live mostly in the narrow channels; and rarely along the main rivers.
As anticipated, after a few minutes of boating we found the Brown-winged Kingfisher sitting on a Gewa Tree by the creek. Its gigantic dagger-like bill was all red and ready for a crab, mudskipper or fish to show up anywhere near. Its diminutive baby-toes looked incredibly small, although as red as the bill; and the fine black outlines around its eyes seemed like the handiwork of a beautician.
No crab or mudskipper showed up near the kingfisher; but our boat did. The wary kingfisher took off and flew a short distance ahead of us to settle on a suitable Gewa Tree on the bank. In a narrow creek, the kingfishers usually fly some distance ahead of a moving boat and settle down on the bank. They fly again as the boat comes near them; and endlessly repeat that bizarre hopping ahead of a boat.
We do not think the kingfishers are unable to comprehend the direction of a moving boat and keep flying forward foolishly. It is quite possible that they repeatedly fly ahead and sit again and again expecting to catch their prey's rushing pell-mell in front of a moving boat. We have seen the Great Egrets in the narrow channels of Sundarban do the same again and again.
A little ahead of our boat we saw the Brown-winged Kingfisher poised to dive down from the branch it had settled on. We were all prepared to witness and photograph a powerful plunge on its prey. And the obliging kingfisher did take the plunge; but in vain. Somehow, the prey escaped and the bird flew off wet and ruffled. We got a good photo, but the bird got nothing.
The bird settled again ahead of us. It seemed far less miserable than we were at its spectacular failure. The kingfisher appeared very well prepared for such letdowns. It looked as vigorous and decorous as before; and as eager for the next plunge. But we doubted if the bird wished as hard as we did for the success of the next attempt. The kingfisher was better prepared for failures than we were.
The success did come in due course. We saw the Kingfisher descend to the mud and grab a small crab. It quickly gulped the clumsy crab along with its nippers and flew back to a drooping branch. There it continued with its day-long vigil on the moving tide. There was no euphoria and no merriment for a successful hunt. We espied no trace of conceit on its beautiful orange face.
We remembered these fascinating lines written on a kingfisher by WH Davies - an aberrant Georgian poet, a great nature lover and a super-trump of the early twentieth century:
Get thee on boughs and clap thy wings
Before the windows of proud kings.
Nay, lovely Bird, thou art not vain;
Thou hast no proud, ambitious mind.