For the final time this season, my friend Niaz and I are on a boat on the Padma in Rajshahi. We are watching birds in the chars. As I look through my camera at a small bird skipping along in the mud, I hear a loud racket approaching overhead. “Bar-headed! Bar-headed!” cries Nuru, our boatman. The V-shaped formation of Bar-headed Geese flaps wings in perfect synchronicity. It continues its flight over the shoreline past our boat and disappears.
Will we find the geese again? As it happens, luck favours us. They have landed on the bank about a kilometre downtream and we spot them walking down a wedge of land towards water's edge: about two dozen grey birds sporting two distinctive black bars on their white head. They are social creatures, poking their beaks into the water, honking at each other and moving together lockstep. These, along with Greylag Geese which I photographed in Tanguar Haor years ago, are the only two wild geese species seen in Bangladesh.
For thousands of years, human civilization has had a close relationship with geese, ducks and swans (the biological family Anatidae) obtaining eggs, meat and feathers from them. These birds, collectively known as waterfowl, have been hunted, treasured and domesticated. Together, they form fifteen tribes, divided into swans, geese, whistling ducks, dabbling ducks and others. Geese, which are larger than ducks and smaller than swans, are subdivided into three groups: grey, black and white geese. Both our geese are from the grey group.
About 73 cm long and weighing 1.6 kilograms, the Bar-headed Goose is a large bird. It eats mainly grasses, water plants, seeds and berries, but also partakes of smaller animal matter including insects and crustaceans. Its legs are well-developed for walking and running in soft wet land where it forages. And as I look at one through my telephoto lens, I have to admit it is an elegant creature.
It is a migratory bird. It spends the summer months in central Asia, nesting and raising its young. As winter sets in it migrates to warmer climes of Southern Asia.
This migration is its claim to fame. The Bar-headed Goose is one of few bird species known to fly over the Himalayas. There are reports of it actually flying over Mount Everest. How it deals with oxygen issues at enormous heights - as well as the reason for following that high-altitude route - is a matter of great interest for scientists.
Back on the river, the flock takes flight as our boat comes too close for comfort. But it lands near the water again, and this time we watch from a distance. After frolicking in the water, it walks up a slope on the char, away from us. There are small, short-lived weeds and grass growing on this slope. While feeding, they turn and change directions several times, looking this way and that, but I never catch one looking directly at us. Near the peak of the slope, three geese stop, stretch their necks and honk. Necks still strained, they cross them momentarily. Within minutes they have walked over the top and out of our sight.
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