Birds of the Padma

Birds of the Padma

Prominent Tagore scholar, parliamentarian and author Pramathanath Bishi, who was close to the poet, wrote in Shilaidahe Rabindranath, “He who has not seen the Padma has not seen Bangladesh; he who has not known the Padma has not known Bangladesh; he who has not understood the Padma has not understood Bangladesh; everything seen and felt about the country is integrated into this river.” Indeed, the immense beauty of the river bed and its uninterrupted flow, the farmlands on both sides and the human habitats there, the trees and the vast sky melding with the horizon, the rain and storms, days of the full moon and the new—the beauty of such phenomena are the building blocks of Bangladesh. In this country, people’s daily lives as well as their culture, economy, transportation and livelihood are very river-centric. Images of the river make this truth come alive. Those ever-familiar forms of rural Bangla live anew, courtesy of the Padma.

The Padma is one of the major rivers that flows from the Himalayas and the Ganges into this Bengal Delta. In spite of fluctuations in its flow over the seasons, the ever-flowing river brims with vitality, and the diversity of life in the domains of its water, land and sky is breath-taking. The Padma is famous for its aquatic animals, including the Hilsa, its birds and small insects, and the vegetation on its banks. The wide surface of the river is quite safe compared to other small water bodies.

The birds’ daily flights over the Padma, their hunt for prey, their nests in reeds and tree branches of its bank and their playful flights over the grey sand of the chars’ in flocks keep the heart of the river bustling. The varying colours of their wings, their dissimilar body shapes and the unique flying style of each species provide the birds of the Padma with an unusual and diverse appearance.

Over the season, the birds of the Padma arrive and depart in groups. Most of the winter birds leave in the summer while other flocks take their place. Some new species arrive during autumn only to disappear in mid-winter. The liveliest season is winter, which here ranges from November to February. During this time, the number of migratory birds increases. Birds then fly from one place to another, either in search of food, shelter and breeding sites or to escape from unfavourable environments. However, Padma is home to migratory birds not only during winter, but in other seasons as well.

In winter, most migratory birds come to our country by traveling thousands of miles from Siberia or the northern part of China, crossing the Himalayas at an altitude of 8,000 feet. Flocks of them come and sit on the sandbars of Padma or the low grasslands and shrubby areas on its two banks. Other migratory birds come to Padma for a short time only to rest or to take a break before they resume their flight to faraway lands.

At least fifty different species of migratory birds come to the banks of the Padma every year. The largest population of Ruddy Shelduck in the country is seen here. These are large, brown, ducklike birds. Their bodies are mostly covered by reddish-brown feather. Their wings are a mixture of white, black and brown, and their beaks, feet and tails are black. A slight difference can be noticed in the pigmentation between the males and the females. The second most commonly seen migratory birds are the Gadwalls. They have dark grey plumage with thin lines. The Fulvous Whistling Duck are also everywhere. They are brown in colour, except for their flanks, which are white. Their beaks and feet are black. Another uniquely beautiful migratory bird called the Northern Pintail can be seen flying over the Padma. They have long tails with a few feathers in the middle standing up like pins. Their heads and necks are dark brown, and two white lines from the sides of the neck come down to the white plumage on the breast. Another beautiful bird on view is the Northern Shoveler. The males have deep green heads, white breasts, blue shoulders, pink eyes and black beaks. The females have dark brown plumage, bronze-blue bands on the wings and brown eyes. The Eurasian Wigeon is another beautiful bird that attracts our attention. The males of this species have a reddish head and yellow lines on their foreheads and beaks. Females do not have these lines.

Mallards and Garganeys are also found on the river. The Garganey is a beautiful bird with brown, grey and white plumage. The Red Crested Pochard is another magnificent bird to be seen. These attract our attention very easily because of their red crests and pink beaks. Another unique bird is the Tufted Duck. They have jet black plumage on most parts of their bodies, except for a small white portion on their wings. They have a tuft of feather that hangs at the back of their head. The Greylag Goose and the Bar Headed Goose can be easily distinguished for their massive size, although they are not easily spotted. Some new species of birds are seen flying around the sandbars just after the monsoons. The most common among them are the sandpipers. These are small birds and form huge flocks. Each flock has a few thousand of these birds, and cover the skies when they fly. They fly in a very orderly fashion, as if following the command of some great general. They make small holes in the warm sand of the sandbars during summer, and lay eggs there. The chicks are hatched from a mixture of the heat of the sand and the heat from the wings of the mother birds covering the eggs. There are many different species of sandpipers. The most common are the Little Pratincole, the Ruddy Turnstone, the Great Knot, the Ruff, the Broad-billed Sandpiper, the Curlew Sandpiper, the Temminck’s Stint and the Sanderling. The rarest among the sandpipers are the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper and the Red Knot.

There are a few species of birds slightly larger than the sandpipers found around the Padma who form comparatively smaller flocks. They all belong to the Charadridae family. Notable among these are the Grey Plover, the Pacific Golden Plover, the Little Ringed Plover, the Lesser Sand-Plover, and the Greater Sand-Plover. There are some other birds that are even larger that form even smaller flocks. Some such birds are the Indian Thick-knee, the Pied Avocet, the Black-winged Stilt, etc. These birds usually sit with their feet half-buried in the mud around sandbars. They hunt for food by poking in the mud below the water using their long beaks. Then there are the Lapwings. Although they stay on land most of the time, they like to live very close to the water. The most common among them is the Red Wattled Lapwing. The River Lapwing are also often on view. Belonging to the same family are the Yellow Wattled Lapwing and the Grey Headed Lapwing.

Among the other birds who flock around the Padma are various species of gulls. While they may seem similar in their natures, they can be differentiated from the colours of their eyes. Among the most beautiful of these birds is the Indian Skimmer. There are also the Brown-Headed Gull, the Black-Headed Gull and the much larger Pallas’s Gull. However, the most active during their mating season in April and May are the Common Terns. They lay their eggs in the warm sands of the empty and silent sandbars of Padma during April and May. Their main source of food are small fishes found in the river. The Whiskered Tern is another kind that can be seen along the sandbars and marshes in and around Padma, where massive Ibises and Storks too roam. Among these are the Glossy Ibis, the Black-Headed Ibis, and the Red-Headed Ibis. Sometimes the Eurasian Spoonbills are also seen. Of the storks, the most beautiful are the Painted Storks. There are also the White Stork, the Wooly-Necked Stork, the Black Stork and the Black-Necked Stork. The largest and the most uniquely coloured among these storks, however, are the Greater Adjutants. These have a bald spot in the centre of their head and feathers on the rest of their body. They hunt frogs, fish and insects using their gigantic beaks and long legs. Throughout the year, cranes, herons, egrets, kingfishers and kites of various colours remain busy hunting for fish on the riverbank. They are either seen hunting for food or taking a break. The most frequently found species of herons and egrets include the Indian Pond Heron, the Grey Heron, the Cattle Egret, the Great White Egret, the Intermediate Egret and the Little Egret. Among the hawks and kites are the Osprey, the Black-Shouldered Kite, and the Oriental Honey Buzzard.

Many varieties of cormorants roam around the Padma throughout the entire year. They often fly in flocks from one place to another, darkening the horizon. These swift birds dive underwater for long periods of time looking for fish before springing up again with prey in their beaks. The cormorant species include the Little Cormorant, the Great Cormorant, the Indian Cormorant and the Oriental Darter.

All these birds of different species and colours keep the river Padma always vibrant and alive. These birds survive by taking shelter in the heart of the river. For sure the Padma is a heavenly river for birders and nature-lovers alike. Unfortunately, due to the Farakka Barrage upstream of the Padma, the flow of its water is severely restricted during the dry season. Moreover, there is the immense impact of climate change. Widespread and intensive hunting of fish and aquatic animals by humans is depleting the resources of the river. In addition, there are the human predators who have no affection for the river. Despite all these obstacles however, birds reign over their kingdom across the vast Padma.

May the river stay alive and ageless now and forever, may nature be conserved, may the birds of our rich and glorious Padma grow up and fly in absolute ease and serenity.

Ansar Uddin Khan Pathan is a nature photographer who worked in Bangladesh Police until his retirement in 2022

Translation: Tanvir Mustafiz Khan

Photos : Ansar Uddin Khan Pathan

Prominent Tagore scholar, parliamentarian and author Pramathanath Bishi, who was close to the poet, wrote in Shilaidahe Rabindranath, “He who has not seen the Padma has not seen Bangladesh; he who has not known the Padma has not known Bangladesh; he who has not understood the Padma has not understood Bangladesh; everything seen and felt…

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