The invisible Florican

Bengal Floricans (Houbaropsis bengalensis) are said to be critically endangered. What does that mean, you ask? IUCN will give you one answer. There are less than 1000 individuals left of this species, the only one of its genus. When the last of these grassland bustards dies, not just the species, but the whole genus will disappear. I look at it in another way. Cornell’s ebird application is used by many birders to record their observations. Take a common Indo-Malayan bird like the white-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis). It has been reported on ebird 520,415 times when I wrote this. The Indian nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus) is perhaps as common, but has been reported only 10,852 times because it is a nocturnal bird; harder to see and identify. The Bengal Florican has been reported 1,037 times, twice by me. There were seven people with me in Manas NP when we saw this bird, so the same sightings may have been reported about ten times more. It is truly rare.

We’d planned our trip for March, which is the breeding season of the bird. Our visit to the eastern range of Manas, the grassland, started early in the morning because the birds are active in the mornings and evenings. The grass was tall, as you can see from the featured photo of the peacock (Pavo cristatus). Floricans would have been entirely hidden. We scanned the grassland fruitlessly for a long time. Then we heard the harsh but faint clicking of the Florican. One came flying low over the grass at a distance. Immediately, another one jumped out of the grass, clucking. The males are territorial. There was a long aerial chase around the horizon. Neither bird came near us. I got a few distant shots of the birds in flight. You can see the white primaries, splayed out like fingers contrasting with a dark lower surface of the wings. The upper surface is completely white, and the body is jet black. As a photographer I was disappointed, but as a birder I was very happy to see this long display of territorial aggression.

The next morning we started much earlier. Perhaps the birds would be more active in the morning. We were either correct or lucky. As soon as we got into the open grassland we spotted a peacock and a Bengal Florican on the road in the distance. The grass was clearly so high that the Florican would be lost in it if it moved away. So we stopped at a distance to get a first shot. The scene was dreamy in the morning fog, and I could not believe in my continuing run of luck: good as a birder, bad as a photographer.

We couldn’t approach too close without spooking the birds. But as long as we kept our distance, we had ample opportunity to take photos. The light was bad because of the fog. But I had a wonderful view of the male: black head and neck, long like any other bustard, dusty speckled brown body and wing coverts, with the white primaries of the wings showing. I’ve consciously traded a long zoom, 2000 mm, for a large sensor, and I’m usually happy with it. But in this light I wished I had a camera with a better sensor. Still, I must count myself satisfied with my first sighting of this rare bird, one in five hundred of all reported sightings. As our grasslands disappear, places like Manas and Kaziranga are the last redoubts of the once common species that abounded through most of India.

Manas National Park

The international border between Bhutan and India runs through a protected forest whose Indian side is called the Manas National Park, and the Bhutanese side is named the Royal Manas National Park. The Manas river, named after the snake goddess Manasa, forms part of the international border. We plan to travel to the Manas NP in a couple of months if we are lucky. If we are very lucky we might get to see the critically endangered Bengal Florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis), perhaps a king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), and a hispid hare (Caprolagus hispidus) or two. It is also home to elephants, wild buffalos, tigers, rhinos, golden langurs (see the featured photo), and pygmy hogs. Although these are animals we have seen before, I wouldn’t mind another view.

In 1928 the park was set aside as a wildlife reserve by a British imperial decree. This land, and the adjoining plains, were then home to the Bodo tribe. Empire is extraction (a wonderful case study of the exploitative economics of empire can be found here). The British empire cleared the plains and planted tea, forced the Orang tribe from Bihar and Bengal to migrate here to work the tea gardens, and started logging the forest, while banning “illegal” logging. The displacement of the forest tribe gave rise to a long-running slow war, on both sides of the border, the forest ecosystem was disrupted, and rhinos went extinct locally. The 2003 accord setting up a Bodo tribal area within Assam finally brought peace. Rhinos were reintroduced, and the Bodos began to take care of their forest again.

The best way to travel? I think we could fly in to Guwahati. The drive from the airport to the village of Bansbari, right outside the central zone of the park, should take about 3 hours. In a more relaxed time, one could have taken it slower in the park, and perhaps stretched the visit to a week. For us now, three days in the park, and a couple of days in travel seem to be optimal. The marginal return in terms of new species seen every day would be low after this. I have to make sure that I manage to taste the silkworm dish which is a Bodo delicacy. I last ate silkworm in China, and liked its nutty flavour.