We were looking over the tree lines of Tanguar haor for the familiar pair of Pallas's fish eagles to fly out in the mist-free winter morning of the new year. We found none! As the sun showed up and no eagle did, our apprehension was confirmed that no Fish Eagle had come to nest at Golabari this winter.
In all our previous visits to the Tanguar haor, we woke up in our tents at 5am as the nesting Pallas's fish eagles at Golabari started their day with a far-reaching raucous cry, "Kurrrrrrra-krr-krr-krr". That strident call was our most reliable alarm clock there for more than a quarter of a century.
The whole day, we kept our ears trained to pick up even a distant call of a Pallas's fish eagle but it was in vain. No eagle called or showed up as we cruised through the seven bird-rich beels of Tanguar haor, counting the waterbirds. By sunset, the fact finally dawned upon us - our precious wetland had finally lost its denizen eagles.
Although we paid our annual visits to the haors to count waterbirds and not the eagles, we were always pleased to be greeted by the Pallas's fish eagle at Golabari, the little village at the entrance of Tanguar haor. Pallas's fish eagle was the oldest inhabitant of Golabari and an iconic bird of the haor.
Human settlement at Golabari started quite recently, about 25 years ago. Pallas's fish eagles were nesting on the old Borun trees there long before the fishermen settled there. We photographed the nesting eagles with our clumsy film cameras and speculated that the eagles must have been nesting there long before the cameras were even invented.
The old Borun trees were pruned and felled as the Golabari village grew. The loyal eagles continued to nest on whatever short and scrawny trees were left there. But the number of house crows that followed the settlers grew too large for the eagles to nest, incubate their eggs and raise chicks successfully.
The Pallas's fish eagles do not get to live at our haors and maintain their property for the whole year. These eagles survive by catching fish in shallow waters, and the water level of the haors remains low and fit for their fishing in the winter months only.
In summer the water from the Meghalaya Hills pours down to the haors and turns those into an inland sea. The Pallas's fish eagles then leave the haors and find their summer feeding areas at the freshly melted waters of the mountain lakes in Mongolia, China and other countries in the east Palearctic.
At the end of summer, the Pallas's fish eagles must prepare to return to their birthplace in Bangladesh as the Palearctic lakes begin to freeze. Although the Himalayan Mountains stand between them and Bangladesh they unerringly find their home at the haors as the water begins to recede in autumn.
The homecoming of the Pallas's fish eagles, however, is not always very welcoming or festive. When the eagles return to the haors they often find that their nesting trees were taken over by the crows and the kites if not pruned or felled by the people.
Pallas's fish eagles have this unpleasant chore of reoccupying their feeding territories and breeding trees from others at the haors every year afresh. And the eagles' job has been growing more difficult by the year as more and more people are settling in the haors and bringing with them scavengers like the crows.
In the past decade, we noted several pairs of Pallas's fish eagles nesting on the high towers of the cell phones in the haor basin. The eagles perhaps chose those very high platforms over the trees as their nesting sites merely to avoid the marauding crowds of crows.
The phone towers were, however, not entirely satisfactory as the eagles' nesting sites since those were frequented by repair and maintenance crews. Erecting a few dedicated platforms to give trouble-free nesting sites to the birds would probably have helped the Pallas's fish eagles nest in peace. That, of course, did not happen.
Every year we saw fewer Pallas's fish eagles during our annual tours of the haors for waterbird census. This year for the first time we happen to see none of them in the Tanguar haor. Through our apathy and inertia, we have allowed the population of this unique bird of our haors to dwindle precipitously.
Pallas's fish eagle has been declared globally endangered, and fewer than 2,500 birds are surviving in the world today. We have driven the most adaptable, resilient and sturdy eagle of our haors to come to the brink of extinction, even if unintentionally.
Pallas's fish eagle has been a bird of this land for at least five crore years. It was once a fishing eagle of the Bay of Bengal which at that time was a strait between the Asian and the Indian plates. Aeons before humans prowled on earth, the eagle moved to the haor as the Bay widened and turned brackish.
Now that the haors have been overtaken by humans, the Pallas's fish eagle has nowhere else to move to and is probably destined to perish. Humans will probably remember 2020 as the year we saw the last breeding pair of Pallas's fish eagles at the Tanguar haor!
This wretched prediction, although unacceptable, may well be prophetic!