Our dampened spirit in the dripping fog at Shatchari National Park lifted swiftly when we found a super shy bird sitting uncharacteristically exposed on a bare branch. The thick mist had mired the bird's soft green plumage and outlandish blue throat-feathers - an odd adornment for which it got its name 'Blue-bearded Bee-eater'. For a little warmth from the feeble sun shining dimly through steaming foliage the bird had briefly put off its lifelong habit of staying hidden.
Blue-bearded Bee-eater is a furtive forest-dwelling bird, unlike the other three species of Bee-eaters of Bangladesh. It is also the largest of all the 31 species of Bee-eaters of the world. The largest species of a family of birds usually get the epithet 'Great', such as Great Cormorant, Great Hornbill, Great Tit etc. The Blue-bearded Bee-eater missed that epithet because of the very distinctive beard-like feathers hanging from its chin. And no bird ever cares how we name it.
The great Bee-eaters of our forests seem to like their beards. The beards are not like the peacock tails belonging exclusively to the males and worn only seasonally. Both male and female Blue-bearded Bee-eaters perennially sport their macho beards. Only two other species of Bee-eaters in the world have those beard-like feathers: the 'Red-bearded Bee-eater' living in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia; and the 'Purple-bearded Bee-eater' living only in Sulawesi.
No one, however, knows fully why the beard-like feathers of special colours evolved in the three species of Bee-eaters. The Bee-eaters usually keep their long throat-feathers pressed close to the breast and rarely exhibit those like the peacock tails in breeding season. Also, no one has explained why those feathers of the male Blue-bearded Bee-eaters reflect more ultraviolet light than those of the females. Do the females like to be dazzled by the ultraviolet light!
The brave Blue-bearded Bee-eater eventually left the bare branch, possibly because of our long ogling. Fortunately, the bird did not disappear into the canopy; but flew to a nearby bush to placidly sit by the side of another Blue-bearded Bee-eater sitting like a meditating sage and soaking up the sunlight. We assumed that they were a male-female pair; but we could not be too sure about that since our eyes or cameras recorded no ultraviolet reflections from their beards.
We managed to hide under a Ficus tree and prolonged our gawking at those gorgeous emerald birds looking like two curvaceous leaves with lazy eyes. Our stealth and patience allowed the birds to sit still and bask till their feathers were dry and shiny. Once dry they turned restless, shook lethargy off their body and flew up to the tree-top. Time was up for them to catch a few juicy Bumblebees, Butterflies, Dragonflies, Damselflies, Honeybees or Hornets to break their fast.
We watched one of the Blue-bearded Bee-eaters take its seat in a bamboo grove. The dry, sleek and shiny bird looked a lot like a regular bamboo-leaf, only more green, stout and animated. Its blue throat-feathers were all tucked in and nearly invisible. Its long, yellow and exquisitely moulded toes were holding the swaying bamboo nonchalantly. In spite of its massive bills it rarely hunts anything but flying insects; and its favourites are the honeybees with brutal stings.
Blue-bearded Bee-eaters are not known to attack beehives as the Honey-Buzzards often do. The Bee-eaters' tactic is to fly close to a beehive and prompt a furious chase by the bees. The irate bees seldom manage to catch up with a Bee-eater; but the leading bee frequently becomes prey as the bird turns sharply to grab it. It is often a play with fire since unlike Buzzards the Blue-bearded Bee-eater does not possess special feathers and skin as shields against the stings.
It would possibly be mean of us to approvingly watch a swarm of violent bees chasing the Blue-bearded Bee-eater. The bees, all furious females with stings, in an attempt to chase off a passerby are unwisely becoming prey to that blue-bearded bird! We remembered an intriguing poem about bees by the young American poet Sylvia Plath who, regrettably, killed herself in 1963. In a poem titled 'Swarm' in the genre named 'confessional poetry' she wrote:
Stings big as drawing pins!
It seems bees have a notion of honour,
A black intractable mind.
We wish the bees did not have such intractable minds and would not chase a passing Blue-bearded Bee-eater to their own doom. But then the Bee-eaters would go hungry! They have not been doing too well in Bangladesh lately because we have been plundering beehives to near extinction everywhere except a few remote parts of Sundarban. These days we get most of our honey from domesticated bees in wooden boxes not accessible to the secretive forest-dwelling birds.
Besides the dearth of beehives the Blue-bearded Bee-eaters are possibly suffering also from a shortage of nesting sites in the Shatchari National Park. Like all bee-eaters it digs a long tunnel on a vertical earth-wall to build its nest in late summer. Perhaps there are not enough sites for these shy Bee-eaters to dig tunnels on the low earth-walls created by the small hill-streams meandering through this little forest frequented by too many visitors in all seasons including summer.
We want Blue-bearded Bee-eaters, the largest Bee-eater of the world, to thrive in all hill-forests of Bangladesh, especially in Shatchari forest which this remarkable bird made its home long before we made it a national park and attracted tourists. A national park is worth that label only so long as its treasured natural endowments are conserved.
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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