The Scimitar Babblers are the exclusive birds of tropical Asia; and majority of them live only in the foothills of the Himalayas. White-browed Scimitar Babbler and Large Scimitar Babbler are the only two of this exclusive group of birds we can still see in Bangladesh
We saw a beautiful brunet bird with a sparkling white bib and pirate's eye-patches quietly climb a bare branch of the tallest Wodier Tree on a slope. It was unmistakably a White-browed Scimitar Babbler - an extremely shy and seldom seen bird of our hill-forests. Evidently, the super-sneaky bird had a sudden craving for sunshine; and briefly suspended its lifelong habit of staying perennially hidden on the damp and dark forest floor.
The Babbler faced the sun in the cloud-cluttered sky and puffed up its body and jerked its floppy tail repeatedly with palpable pleasure. The sun was up and shining high over the hills of Lama although it was barely six in the morning. The autumn clouds were caressing the face of the sun to emulate, or perhaps, to spite the Babbler. The Babbler, however, stayed unmoved and seemed only too happy to be alive on a tranquil morning in the forest.
Only in the morning, a Scimitar Babbler would dare climb a bare branch like that and sit on an exposed spot. The morning air was not hot enough for the aerial hunters like Serpent Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and Shikra etcetera to soar high in the sky and swoop down on a prey. Forest turned treacherous for birds like Babblers as the day progressed. That, however, was no reason for an astute Babbler to ruin a delightful morning by worrying about a vexing afternoon.
We were thrilled to have the chance to watch a secretive bird as the White-browed Scimitar Babbler even before we trekked half a kilometre in the morning. We were also scared stiff with the horror of bringing the spectacle to an abrupt end any moment, if so much as the morning breeze made one of us sneeze. It did not. We were well sheltered by a bamboo grove arching over us; and the gentle wind blowing between the groves was delightfully warm and even.
However, we did not expect the Babbler to stay perched forever on top of a bare branch. Neither did the Babbler. Soon it dropped down to a horizontal branch and looked suspiciously at the bamboo grove we were hiding under. But our nervous shuffling was covered well by the endless swaying and moaning of bamboo. The relieved Babbler decided to resume the pleasurable basking and happily started climbing back to the sunny spot.
The round yellow eyes peering through the dark eye-patches could have made the White-browed Scimitar Babbler look severe or sad. Instead, its super-long white eye-brows powerfully expressed the overflowing delight, mirth and gaiety the ebullient bird naturally felt. It looked somewhat like a happy and playful child wearing a hijab. Its down-curved bill easily disproved the belief that only the up-curves represented smiley faces.
With its long and sturdy legs, the Babbler hopped on cheerfully; and visibly relished the bounce every time the slender branch sprang back. We could feel the unrestrained pleasure the bird derived from the improvised roller-coaster ride on the Wodier branch. We harked back to these heartwarming lines of the great nineteenth-century English poet William Wordsworth wrote about playful birds:
The birds around me hopped and played:
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion which they made,
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
The blissful Babbler bounding on the bare branch not only allowed us to measure his thoughts; he chanced to influence our own thoughts in a strange way.
We began to believe that to be alive on such a blissful morning was the greatest gift we may ever get. The worries of a breathless noontime and an exasperated evening need not overshadow the joy of waking up on a serene morning with a million buds opening to greet the gentle sun and scurrying clouds.
A White-browed Scimitar Babbler weighed no more than 30 grams, although an oversized scimitar-bill, fluffy plumage and a long tail made it look big and imposing. We were not surprised to see the thin Wodier branch bounce, not break, under its weight. We had seen the Babblers playfully climb the stems of sturdy grass on the hills of Himsori where we caught them for taking measurements and putting identifying rings on their feet a few years before.
After a few minutes of basking in the prickly sun, the sated Babbler lunged into the forest like a brown leaf dropping off in fall. The dark floor of the hill-forest was where the bird was born and happy to spend its entire life at. We did not know how long the bird would be sustained by the little warmth it transported to its dark abode and when it would feel like coming up for the encore. We wished the glorious bird a safe and 'prosperous' life and it would show up once again when we visit Lama another time.
Fortunately, the White-browed Scimitar Babblers continue to live in the denuded forests of Chittagong and Sylhet divisions. They love tall grass and bamboo that grow on these hills; and feed on insects from the leaf-litters on the ground there. We were lucky to hear a few pairs of them singing their bubbling duets 'Oop pupupu' at several places in the five days we trekked in Lama.
The Scimitar Babblers are the exclusive birds of tropical Asia; and majority of them live only in the foothills of the Himalayas.
White-browed Scimitar Babbler and Large Scimitar Babbler are the only two of this exclusive group of birds we can still see in Bangladesh. The other two of the group, Red-billed Scimitar Babbler and Spot-breasted Scimitar Babbler, were seen only once in our country some three decades before.
The sad thoughts that inevitably grew on us with the brightening sunlight had to do with the wanton damages done relentlessly to bamboo-forests and grasses in our hills. It would be a sad day for us when all our hill-forests were messed up and we no longer came upon the Scimitar Babblers.
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam. First Published in The Business Standard.
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