It was very pleasing to see two Yellow Bitterns fly back and forth at Shyampur, a few kilometres from the crowded Hemayetpur junction at Savar. Yellow Bitterns are very stealthy birds and rarely seen in the open. But over the shrinking slush of Shyampur, the bitterns - strangely - had blown their cover.
Yellow Bittern is named so because it is yellow, pale or pastel yellow. It stays hidden in the paddy, lily-pad or water-hyacinth and quietly hunts frogs, mollusks, prawns and mudbugs. For this stealthy nature, it remains an unknown bird to most of our people, even where it thrives well.
The Yellow Bittern chooses to turn orange and intrepid in the monsoon. Monsoon is the season for the bittern to be flashy, and to court, breed and build a nest. The auburn bitterns that were commuting overhead at Shyampur were obviously in their wedding dresses.
Shyampur was a formidable floodplain of the Dhaleshwari and the Buriganga rivers. With the overflowing rivers on three sides, the wetland of Shyampur was once a haven for bitterns. That was when only farmers and fishers lived there. Now brick-buildings, big and small, sprout out of the bog-like mushrooms after a shower.
We were delighted to see that the bitterns had not given up on the remnant swamps of Shyampur which is poke-marked with shops and shanties, and intersected by cobbled streets. We saw both Yellow Bittern and Black Bittern fly out of the bog, and steer over the newly erected metal poles and crazy tangles of electric cables.
Although some 16 species of herons, egrets and bitterns live in the wetlands of Bangladesh, we do not get to see bitterns and night-herons as often as other herons and egrets that hunt in the open and in broad daylight.
We have four species of bitterns and they are the stealthiest hunters of our wetland. They keep standing frozen for hours without moving a feather while waiting for unsuspecting prey to come within their stabbing range.
As a child, the English poet Ted Hughes was one patient observer of those aquatic hunters at his hometown Mytholmroyd in Yorkshire. In a poem titled "The Heron", the great narrator of the shrewdness of the animal world wrote:
But the Heron
Poised to stab
Has turned to iron
And cannot move.
The capacity to stay immobile indefinitely is what allows the bittern to carry on with a protracted hunt at an uneasy wetland of Shyampur. The lightly coloured dress that merges well with the yellowing leaves of the wetland contributes greatly in its attempt to stay undetected.
It was easy for us to see the bittern as it flew overhead but not after it descended to land. The bird plunged into some cover as soon as it closed its wings. It craved to disappear into the vegetation - be it grass, paddy, lily, lotus, reed or water-hyacinth. And there it turned to iron and did not move.
Only the mighty monsoon changes the extreme yearning of the Yellow Bittern to stay alone and invisible. For it, the rain brings an abundance of food – an army of invertebrates and frogs that thrive better in freshwater. In monsoon, the well-nourished bitterns molt into fresh auburn feathers and go courting.
We were pleased to see some paddy standing in water and a few fields of lily, weed and grass between the buildings of Shyampur. Those surviving fields of paddy, lily and weed were the reason why a couple of bitterns had not left their traditional home, a floodplain now clogged with urban ugliness.
Not only had the bitterns stayed at Shyampur, but they also continued to nest and raise their chicks there. We saw a Black Bittern repeatedly fly overhead with some food in its bill. No bittern would do so unless it had growing chicks in its nest somewhere.
Bitterns prefer to nest in thick tangles of vines, or in some herbaceous vegetation - especially near the water. We were thrilled to see a pair of Yellow Bittern nesting in the climbing plant called Rangoon Creeper in an isolated house of an artist at Shyampur.
We had the good fortune to photograph from far afield the growing chicks of the Yellow Bittern. The wide-eyed chicks had just left the nest to explore the world beyond their nursery. They certainly looked prettier than the scorched flowers of the creeper we call Madhurilata.
Usually, the Yellow Bittern chicks grow quickly and become independent very fast. We hoped that the prolific parents would breed again after their four chicks fledge. Shyampur, Keraniganj and Purbachal are the only places we frequently see the last bitterns of Dhaka.
Like other floodplains of Dhaka, Shyampur had a few jalmahals, beels and other khas lands. Those were occupied shrewdly, encroached incrementally, and converted shockingly to garbage dumps as the march of urbanisation went on the helter-skelter.
The marshlands of Shyampur would be saved as an invaluable bird habitat and a recreation area for the citizenry if the administration at the union level had the vision and the capacity to save and showcase natural wealth and heritage.
But we do not wish anyone to feel bitter about anybody or anything at Shyampur. At least for now, Shyampur continues to offer us the boundless joy of watching the bitterns fly silently overhead, sit slyly on a lily pad, swing athletically from arum stems and raise chicks as pretty as the Madhurilata blossoms. We do not know of any urban pleasures worth replacing with that joy.