We saw an elegant Crake dashing along the bank of Bagmara beel as the crimson sun raked the slumbering Koroch groves of Tanguar haor. We had sacrificed our morning snooze and left the cosy tents before sunrise expecting to encounter creatures that venture out of their dens in twilight hours.
Our efforts were fully rewarded. The reddish bird with rubicund legs kept running back and forth along the edge of water as we stood still on a winding track. Nowadays, one has to be lucky to spot a sneaky bird like that Ruddy-breasted Crake even at Tanguar haor, the largest habitat of Crakes in Bangladesh.
The Crake walked briskly on the steaming grass like a little red apparition and pecked every now and then on some ill-fated worms, insects and other sly crawlers. We took a few stealthy steps to hide behind a silver trunk of Barun Tree, wishing to stay invisible to the wary bird as the sun shone on Bagmara beel.
We also wished the Crake's feeding binge to go on unconstrained. We recalled how neatly the great nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson expressed the simple pleasure of watching a bird go about doing its daily chores. In a poem titled 'A Bird came down the Walk' she wrote:
A bird came down the walk
He did not know I saw
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow raw.
The sunlight was not strong enough for us to see what worms the Crake was eating raw! But we believed that the worms were not poisoned or petrified. Being a Ramsar Site the Bagmara and other selected beels of Tanguar haor are not leased out to the fish-lords to merrily plunder, pollute and poison.
The 'Kanda' or the narrow slice of high ground between the beels is where the Ruddy-breasted Crakes live. Every pair of Crake is obliged to 'own' a little piece of land on the Kanda where they have to live, feed and breed in the dry season. Every pair must have enough property to find its daily meal from.
A pair of Crakes must not ever stray into the property of another pair and steal their food. Crakes stay vigilant against such intrusions and vigorously chase away the interlopers. The Ruddy-breasted Crakes, however, hardly ever engage in a long and bitter fight common among its close cousin, the Watercock.
The Ruddy-breasted Crakes supplement their meal readily with some vegetables and fruit from a variety of wild plants. But flesh is number one on their menu; and they need a lot of worms and mollusks in the breeding season. Their bills are custom-made to crack open the hard-shelled critters of the marshland.
Soon we saw a second Crake emerge from the bush and stand alongside the other Crake. Although they looked alike we were happy to presume that the first was a male and the second a female. They started running up and down, feeding feverishly and acting as if they owned the entire bushy Kanda of Bagmara.
The 'property' of a pair of Ruddy-breasted Crakes on a Kanda used to be pretty small in the days of plenty. We could see several pairs of Crakes on a short walk along any Kanda two decades before. Now, a whole Kanda may not be enough for the survival of a single pair since worms and insects are plentiful no longer.
The two Crakes started wading through the shallow water of Bagmara beel, possibly, in search of their cherished grub, such as crab and snail. Their stunning red eyes were strained to spot those crafty creatures crawling at the bottom of the beel. The tense birds held their stumpy tails upright in anticipation.
The Crakes could afford to focus fully on the water below since the air above was still too cold to support the hovering hunters. The raptor such as the Marsh Harriers, Fish Eagles and Peregrine Falcons do prey upon the Crakes. But an early February morning is not warm enough for those birds to launch their attacks.
A long strip of reeds growing at the beels' edge used to be the safe foraging grounds of Crakes. They could safely walk in reed-bed the whole day without being detected. The body of the Ruddy-breasted Crake is laterally compressed so that it may pass comfortably through the narrow gaps between reeds.
But the reed is too precious an object for the poor people living at the fringe of our haors. The young reeds are fodder for their cattle and the mature ones are their thatching materials and fuel-wood. Reeds are also easy to harvest and transport; and therefore, the most frequently reaped plants of the haor basin.
Over the past decades, we saw the reeds of Tanguar haor all but disappear. Now on less than one percent of land, there is any reed at all. That has forced the poor Ruddy-breasted Crakes to forage under a treacherous sky patrolled by their aerial foes. They are also more exposed to rubbernecks like us.
The only redeeming feature in the lives of the Crakes of the haor basin today is that the number of their aerial foes has also diminished drastically. We rarely see an Eagle or a Harrier in the sky over Tanguar haor these days. Such an empty sky, however, cannot be considered desirable by anyone, even the Crakes.
The Ruddy-breasted Crakes thrived in the reed-land under a sky dominated by raptors for millions of years. Their chicks learnt how to forage stealthily on the Kanda and disappear in the scrub when a raptor showed up. We do not know if the Crake-chicks of today would be as vigilant, alert and smart as before!
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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