But a place little known to foreigners are the Haors. Especially the knowledge that during the Bangladesh winter months, when the water levels go down, thousands of water birds come sweeping in to these areas, from as far as Siberia, to feed and rest before they migrate onwards.
After two years of waiting, we decided that we would brave a trip to the Haors, to see for ourselves the fantastic gathering of water birds. We approached travel agents in Dhaka, but none were able to come up with an itinerary. Finally, through contacts via… via … known persons, we managed to organise a four-day trip to the Tanguar Haors, close to Sylhet.
The idea was that we were to spend two nights and three days on a large live-aboard boat that would be anchored close to the Haors. We would then take a wooden row-boat into the beels or low-lying areas of water retention to see the birds. This way we could make as many trips as we liked without disturbing the birds.
One Friday morning around 6:30AM, we set off by car towards Sylhet. Being Friday and early in the day, the roads were reasonably free. By 8AM we were on the Sylhet road, and from then on we travelled through beautiful rural roads. Along the way, we saw farmers busily planting Boro paddy, and the fields were awash with the green of the young paddy plants. Boro paddy in the dry winter months is irrigated with ground water. Along the way, Shimul, or Cotton Trees, were blooming with red feathery flowers, attracting birds and insects. We passed around five toll payment spots, each charging for the use of a stretch of road or a bridge. We passed people engaged in collecting stones that roll down from India. The stones were for the construction industry. Finally, after 7 hours on the road, we made it to Sunamganj-- a town in Sylhet. Here, we were met by our guide Raju, with whom we drove towards our boat, which would be our home for the next three days.
Our boat was lying on the river Patlai. Usually, we would have boarded it at the Tahirpur harbour, but because the river was too dry, we needed to drive about 2 hours to another harbour called Sulaimanpur. Finally, around 4:30PM, we were in our boat, and chugging along the river towards Tanguar Haor. On board the boat, there was a cook with his helper, the owner and captain of the boat with his helper, and our guide. The boat had two storeys. The top floor was open and a place to relax and have our meals. The toilet was also located there. Below were the sleeping quarters and place for our luggage. We sailed along, taking in the scenery of green paddy fields, and boats of different sort sailing along. We saw large commercial boats, with goods or passengers, and also small fishing boats. There was the pretty sight of a commercial duck herder standing and sailing his boat, while herding his large flocks of local ducks, all squawking and following him dutifully. Along the banks people were having their evening baths, or washing their clothes. Children were playing in the cold, cold water before retiring for dinner and bed. Already we could see lots of resident birds. Flocks of black cormorants, white egrets and herons, and occasionally, terns and even seagulls flying above us, on their way to roost in the trees along the banks. We got to see a spectacular sunset, before arriving at the Haor around 8PM. By then, it was dark, and the winter chill began to bite. After a tasty Bengali meal of rice, fish and vegetable curries, we went to bed, excited that we would be up at dawn and off to explore the beels or lakes to see the migratory birds.
The next morning, at 7AM, while the countryside was still in the grips of winter chill and the landscape was draped in clouds of mist, we set off in a small wooden paddle towards the beels. Only such boats are allowed in this waterway as it minimises the disturbance to the birds. We passed a few fishermen, on their way for some early fishing. Again, black cormorants and white egrets and herons flew in front of us, as though they were ushering in the beautiful sight that we were to behold.
The waterway narrowed and among the vegetation on either side were hundreds of Purple Swamphen, all in their bright purple and red splendour-- feeding, running around excitedly and being Purple Swamphens. As I was busy training my camera on them, the boat took another turn and the beel opened up and lo and behold in front was a birders' paradise! There, in the whitish mist that still hung in the air, swimming in the water were thousands of water birds. Most we were seeing for the first time. There were bright orange Red-crested Pochards, Baer's Pochard, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveller, Mallard, Teals of all kinds, and Black Coots with bright white beaks, and hundreds of other water birds I could not even name in my excitement. Along the banks were vegetative patches, where Glossy Ibis, Crakes, Rails, white breasted water hen, different types of Egrets, and Cormorants were in their numbers. Above were hundreds of Terns and Gulls swooping and wheeling. All feeding, feeding…, and occasionally, squabbling over mates. The birds were generally relaxed in the presence of humans, partly because of the good conservation efforts of Bangladesh. Where there are plentiful prey like birds and fish, there are prey birds. We were thrilled to see the Pallas's Fish Eagle several times and also nesting! This eagle is classified as endangered, therefore we felt privileged to see it. The Brahminy Kite was also nesting in the trees. We could see its fluffy chick peeking over the nest.
And I was shooting, shooting, shooting…with a camera of course.
We did four trips like this into the beel. The beel itself was edged by the Indian border and the Meghalaya Hills. The water of the beel is clear and clean, with the vegetation inside visible. This forms the food of many water birds, and a place for fish.
Tanguar Haor is one of many haors in Bangladesh. These are exceptional wetland systems that are vital for birdlife, both resident and migratory. In winter, birds fly in from thousands of miles to avoid the arctic chill. The haors are a place where they rest, recuperate, and nest. It is also home to many unique species of plant life, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and fresh water fish. The fish are also vital for the people who call this place their home and fish for their livelihood.
Our boat was anchored along the banks of Gulbari, a remote village that was closest to the haor. Therefore, a vital place for conserving the haors. While we were there, we did see security guards overseeing the prevention of hunting of wild birds and animals. The village was also involved in this effort in their own way. Their remoteness meant there was no electricity, and schools were far away. The tea shop was the only shop for miles around and was a place of communal gathering. The people who lived in this village were mainly fishing for their food and livelihood. They were also duck rearing, and growing vegetables for their needs. In the rainy season, a lot of their activities are curtailed by the weather, which makes life challenging, to say the least. Despite their poverty, they are the guardians of the haor.
After spending two nights, we left on the third day, sailing back in our boat till we got to Sulaimanpur again. We stayed overnight in Sunamganj, and then back to the hustle and bustle of Dhaka. This was a long and tiring trip, but worth every bit for the fresh and clean air, the rustic landscape, the kind and smiling people and the Birds, Birds, and Birds …
By Valli de Vries
Photo: Valli de Vries