Masked Finfoot - elusive bird of the Sundarbans, Bangladesh
by M. Monirul H. Khan, from OBC Bulletin 38, December 2003.
It was dusk when I was coming back to my research camp after surveying for signs of tiger in the mangroves of the Sundarbans of Bangladesh on 17 January 2003. I was on a small boat in one of the creeks, during the low tide, facing a rising full moon in the sky. My attention was captured by the romantic reflection of the moon on the water. The fronds of the Nipa Palm Nypa fruticans - very similar to that of the Coconut Palm - were 'clapping' in the breeze coming in from the Bay of Bengal, making a mystical kind of music. Suddenly, among the trunks of the nipa, foraging along the bank, I spied a grebe-like bird. It was the size of a duck, but the enveloping darkness made it difficult to see clearly. I took out my camera, attached a flashgun to it, and started approaching closer in the boat. The bird was smart. It walked up to the muddy bank and stood silently inside a bush, as though challenging my patience. I told my boatman to move the boat away a bit so that the bird might reappear. It only took twenty minutes. The bird came down to the water and started looking for food again. I started following it, waiting for an opportunity to see it in open water.
Half an hour later, when all the potential locations of food had been checked out, the bird started swimming across the creek to the opposite bank, finally allowing me the good look that I had been waiting for. In the flooding moonlight, I easily recognised the bird - a female Masked Finfoot Heliopais personata. I immediately focused the lens and released the shutter. The sudden flash from the flashgun terrified the bird and it half-ran, half-flew on the water surface, uttering a harsh 'keek-keek-keek' call, and disappeared from sight. From my previous observations, I knew that the Masked Finfoot prefers to feed in the late afternoon and early morning, during the low tide, but this was the first-ever observation of its feeding in darkness. The species's diet mainly comprises of aquatic insects, small crabs, etc. The Masked Finfoot is one of the rarest and least known birds in the world and is only found in a few pockets of wetland habitat in the Oriental Region. (1)
On the Indian Subcontinent, it is found only in the Sundarbans and in parts of Assam. In Bangladesh, the only site where this bird is found is the Sundarbans. It has been classified as a 'scarce'(2) or 'fairly common'(3) species. Previous reports on the occurrence of this species in the northern, eastern and coastal regions of Bangladesh (4) were probably hypothetical. (1) This elusive species has a very small, declining population as a result of loss and degradation of wetlands and lowland forests. Globally, it has been categorised as a Vulnerable species by the IUCN, (5) while in Bangladesh it is an Endangered species.(6) The Masked Finfoot is a brownish bird with yellowish bill and legs. The male has a prominent black throat and foreneck while the female has a white throat and foreneck surrounded by a prominent black border.
Perhaps the best habitat for the species in its global range are the mangroves of the Sundarbans - a tidal swamp of about 10,000 km2 in the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta of Bangladesh and India. Based on my field observations I estimate that there might be a few hundred birds living in the Sundarbans. The species avoids strong sunlight and hence is rarely seen. Most of my sightings were of solitary individuals, but a small number of pairs was also seen with females being more commonly encountered than males. Birds were usually seen in the same creeks, indicating that they are probably territorial. They rarely fly, and when they do, it is only a few feet above the water. The flight, however, is very fast. When alarmed, the species prefers to hide in the bushes on the bank of the creek and on a few occassions I was able to observe birds resting inside these bushes, sitting on the ground, in this manner.
The breeding of this species is poorly known on the Indian Subcontinent. It has been described both as a resident and as a winter visitor. (7,8) Although I did not see any nest, I did see them all through the year (most likely the same individuals). I am sure that they are resident birds, at least in the Sundarbans. From my interviews with the local people, I came to know that a young man had found a nest of the Masked Finfoot in Ghagramari, northern Sundarbans, in the monsoon (June/July) of 1999. The nest was in a dense forest, on a dead tree slightly above the creek. There were eight longish, ashy-white eggs with small dark blotches. He had collected the eggs and attempted to hatch them by using a domestic hen to incubate them. Four out of the eight eggs had hatched. The hatchlings were yellow with a slight black tinge. However, they died soon afterwards.
It appears that the Masked Finfoots of the Sundarbans are safe, because there is no major threat to them or their habitat. However, the population should be monitored regularly. There is an urgent need to study the ecology and behaviour of this elusive species in order to achieve the baseline information necessary for its long-term management.
BirdLife International (2001) Threatened birds of Asia: the Birdlife International Red Data Book. Cambridge: BirdLife International.
Thompson, P. M. and Johnson, D. L. (1996) Birding in Bangladesh: a guide to birdwatching sites and a checklist of birds. Dhaka: unpublished report.
Hussain, Z. (1993) The management of the Sunderbans forest, Bangladesh. In: Wetland and waterfowl conservation in South and West Asia (Eds. Moser, M. and van Vessem, J.). WRB Special Publication No. 25, AWB Publication No. 85. pp.132-135.
Rashid, H. (1967) Systematic list of the birds of East Pakistan. Asiatic Society of Pakistan (Publication No. 20).
Hilton-Taylor, C. (Compiler) (2000) 2000 IUCN red list of threatened species. Gland and Cambridge: IUCN.
IUCN Bangladesh (2000) Red book of threatened birds of Bangladesh. Dhaka: IUCN Bangladesh.
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Harvey, W.G. (1990) Birds in Bangladesh. Dhaka: The University Press Limited.