A flash of gold from the mud of Hakaluki haor lifted our spirit as soon as we began our survey of waterbirds on a gloomy February morning. On the mud stood a lonely bird with a lovely golden wash on its brown feathers - it was a handsome Pacific Golden Plover.
The gorgeous golden bird took off before we could take a long and close look. It was too brief an encounter to be satisfactory at all. Even then, that little glow of gold cheered us up - it was the first Golden Plover we spotted at the haor basin in the winter of 2022.
With an impeccable round head, enormous round eyes and triangular golden spots on its body the bird was indubitably a Golden Plover. What we wondered about was why it had no company! Those gregarious plovers usually live in flocks and are rarely seen alone at their winter home in Bangladesh.
In winter the haor basin splits into smaller wetlands we call beels, and between the beels there are interminable patches of short grass. That grassland is an ideal foraging ground for the Golden Plovers. The dry and seemingly lifeless grass hides crawling bugs, beetles and spiders the plovers feed on.
Golden Plovers used to forage often in the stubbles of our harvested paddy fields only a few decades before. We rarely see any of them in the farmlands now, probably, because of the boundless success of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides in poisoning and killing the bugs across the board.
The two sites in Bangladesh yet to be laden severely with chemical poisons are the fallow grassland of haor basin and the coastal mud-flats covered with sturdy grass that thrives in tidal water. Those may be the only places left for the Golden Plovers to feed on bugs without falling sick or dying.
The global population of the Golden Plover has recently been in slow decline mainly due to the severe weather at its breeding grounds in the arctic tundra. The waterbird surveys of the past 30 years, however, show that the population decline has been much sharper in Bangladesh.
We hoped that Hakaluki being the largest haor of Bangladesh would host hundreds of Golden Plovers. And it did. We were delighted to see a flock of more than a hundred plovers in the drying grass as we plodded between the beels.
Golden Plovers are camouflaged to stay undetectable in the grass. As expected, the birds in the grass were far less cagy than the nervy ones we found in the mud. Being well-hidden and self-assured, the plovers allowed us to watch, count and photograph the flock foraging and frolicking all over the grassland.
Soon the Golden Plover will start moulting and not remain invisible in the grass in March-April. Its belly will turn all black and its back will be boldly decorated with black and gold. That is the apparel it needs to don to fly northward to its arctic breeding ground.
Besides new attire, the Golden Plover needs a lot of fat reserve for the lengthy migration flight it undertakes. It flies all the way to Siberia to breed. Unbelievably, many plovers go beyond Siberia and cross the Bering Strait to breed in western Alaska. Plovers with inadequate fat do not make it.
Golden Plover is designed for long-distance flights. Although it is less than a foot from bill to tail, its wings measure more than two feet from tip to tip. Many of them fly more than 8,000 kilometres from their winter home to the breeding ground.
The male Golden Plovers usually leave for the breeding ground in flocks ahead of the females. At the breeding ground, the males split from one another and individually find and protect a feeding ground for their future family. The all-female flocks leave the winter home for the breeding ground weeks later.
Female Golden Plovers are also the first to leave the breeding ground for Bangladesh and other winter homes. After the females, the males migrate leaving the growing chicks behind. That is possible because immediately after hatching the chick can forage on its own in the predator-free tundra.
The Golden Plover chicks migrate a full month after the parents. They come to land at their winter home as late as October-November. At places like Hakaluki haor, the young ones get to socialise with the seniors for the first time.
Remarkably, the Golden Plovers have been living in the Golf-courses of Hawaii islands in winter. The plovers are called 'Kolea' and treated like treasures by people there. The Koleas have been counted, observed and studied by biologists for decades. The tagged birds have reportedly been coming back to the same site year after year.
We call the Golden Plovers 'Shonajiria'. Although the Sonajirias of Hakaluki haor have not been tagged, we can assume that they have also been visiting the same site for ages. We can also guess what will happen to them if we turn the grassland of the haor into paddy fields packed with poisonous chemicals.
During our Hakaluki-tour we saw the earth-movers making embankments to extend the single-crop paddy cultivation over more grasslands of the haor. That short-sighted transformation of the haor basin could expand paddy fields only by plundering the lands where the fish and the birds lived.
Attempts to expand paddy culture in the haor basin have been beleaguered by flash flood and other vagaries of nature. We have, however, learnt little from that experience; and the desire to take our cultivation into every precious wilderness of the country persists.
The beels of our haor basin are where the fish thrive better than our cultivated paddy would ever do. The beels have been concurrently hosting the fish and the bird for ages. When we convert a beel to a paddy field and fill it with chemicals it manages to kill the fish and the bird simultaneously.