About a year ago, I was returning from a trip to Sundarban when friends looking out from the boat’s deck called me with considerable excitement. Half a kilometre ahead a flock of white birds, perhaps three or four dozen, were sitting atop the trees growing on the riverbank. At first the birds ignored our boat but as we approached closer they took off in an explosion of white puffs against the green background which became a flock flying in formation.
The beauty and grace of this aerial show dazzled us.
The bird was part of my childhood. It was the snow-white bok (egret), perhaps best known for its classic pose of standing on one leg. Where I grew up, exploring hills and fields of Sylhet, bok was an integral part of the landscape.
The egret comes in three sizes: small, medium and great. The small one is easiest to identify because its yellow toes stand out against its black feet. The medium and great egrets look similar with their yellow bills and black legs but one way to tell them apart is that the gape line (the line running from the bill towards the eye) extends behind the eye in the great egret.
Over the years many birds of my childhood have disappeared from Bangladesh, including sharosh, vultures (almost gone), and various large storks. But luckily the egret is still here in force, along with many cousins including the pond heron (kani bok) and the cattle egret (go-bok.)
Great egrets can be seen – particularly in winter – in fields containing shallow water. They can grow up to a meter but weigh only about a kilogram; their prominent yellow bill turns dark during breeding. Their slender neck – longer than the body – lends them their graceful air. Egrets are members of the larger heron family.
During breeding, the egret grows special plumage – long filigree feathers in its back – that it displays during the mating ritual. These beautiful feathers were once in much demand and egrets were hunted for them in some parts of the world.
Great egrets will roost with other herons and egrets, but when it comes to hunting they usually prefer to be alone. However, I have seen egrets share the same territory with kingfishers and cormorants.
One afternoon, I was watching a great egret in foot-deep water at the edge of Baikka Beel. It stood perfectly still, staring into the water, as if admiring its mirror-like reflection. Then, still looking into the water, it slowly stretched its enormously long neck. Occasionally it tilted its head sideways, perhaps to reduce the water’s glare. Suddenly its head disappeared underwater with a splash. When it emerged it held a puti fish inside its bill.
Indeed, egrets are accomplished, stealthy hunters. They eat fish, frogs, small mammals and even small snakes. They stand on one foot to mislead their prey into thinking they are trees.
So the next time you see that funny, one-legged, skinny, beautiful bird standing still in the water, you will know what is uppermost on its mind