Friday, 29 May 2015

Watching the Watcher

A crab ducks for cover on a Sonadia shoal.

As the speedboat bounces across the relatively calm waters on its way to the shoals of Sonadia Island in Cox’s Bazar, it’s easy to imagine it’s a chase scene in a James Bond film. The morning sun is glorious, the natural setting sublime and the pace only slows to negotiate narrower mangrove-lined channels. In a way it is a chase: a race against an incoming tide, a race to count foraging shorebirds before they head off to roost as waters rise.

Md Foysal. His job is his passion.
For most people a job is a means to secure a livelihood. For a select few, both lucky and unlucky, career is a passion. As he heads to the “office” primarily to count sparrow-sized spoon-billed sandpipers on the muddy flats and sandy edges of the Bay of Bengal, conservationist Md Foysal, 29, of South Keraniganj falls into the latter category.

“Science believes in proof,” he says, “We count to show that Bangladesh is an important wintering site for the sandpipers, possibly the most important.”

He looks the part: not only clothes but even his rucksack is camouflage patterned. The binoculars on a sturdy tripod are ready. He’s not even thinking of wasting time with a camera like a tourist.

It’s an international effort to protect the less than 400 “spoonies,” as they call them, which constitute the global population including juveniles. In the tundra of the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia’s Far East where spoon-billed sandpipers breed before their long flight south, Foysal’s Russian colleagues protect nests, hatch eggs and rear chicks.

Shellfish trails.

This year, Foysal has recorded up to 49 mature birds in the census at Sonadia and Sandwip, representing around 25% of the global number of adults. It’s suspected there are more.

Working for the Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project, from October to April he heads to the shoals at least once a month, squelching across muddy flat to plant binoculars, watch and tally. For Foysal, nothing could be better.

“Whenever I’m out in the natural world, I know that I love it.”

Md Foysal's office.

A warning to parents who see their children as bankers or doctors: this is what can happen to a child reared in a household of pets. 

His father had pigeons and a dog; his uncle had parrots, mongooses, pigeons and a dog; his sister kept a weaverbird.

A place to count spoon-billed sandpipers.
As a five-year-old Foysal bought a rose-necked parakeet. He called it Titu and taught it to say “Kaka.” Their garden also furnished him with an interest in plants.

“I used to collect unknown plants from the area, anything fascinating, and try to grow them,” he says. “I had turtles, snakes, lovebirds, budgerigars, dogs, rabbits and guinea pigs. Mum was against the hobby. She didn’t mind the plants but she thought the animals made the home dirty.”

When he got his snake Foysal’s mother said “It will bite you. You will die.” She took some convincing it was a non-venomous species.

Each pet and plant raised new questions for Foysal. He was curious why a hill mynah failed to mimic some words, why an orange seedling he had germinated from seed died in sandy soils. Bird colours, seeds, insectivorous diets… he wanted to know why.

Getting around by speedboat.

His older cousins laughed at him when he’d ask for nature books but they nonetheless complied and when he was in class 9 he recalls a whole night passed submerged in a book.

Watching the watchers, Md Foysal and Sakib Ahmed.

From college Foysal had more freedom to move about and he spotted some kind of raptor in a tal-palm close to home. After consulting his books he identified it as a red headed falcon and he was determined to see its red head.

“I convinced my father to give money for some basic binoculars,” he says, “but it’s not easy to see the red head of a falcon with cheap binoculars.” Yet he watched it hunting, hovering and scanning for prey. Then one day it dived after a sparrow and its red head came into clear view.

Having learnt that the red headed falcon was little studied, Foysal made a plan to study it. He kept red headed falcon notebooks for his satisfaction.

Mangroves colonising a shoal.
In 2001 the college student decided to call renowned birdwatcher and conservationist Enamul Haque of the Bangladesh Bird Club. Foysal saved money from tuition fees to make the call.

As reward for his efforts he was given a bird calendar and invited to attend his first bird club meeting. “People said bird watching was mad,” recalls Foysal, “I was so happy not to be alone. I made a lot of friends.”

Against the advice of ‘everyone’, including an esteemed professor of Dhaka University, Foysal chose zoology, later completing a Masters in Wildlife and Conservation. “People in Bangladesh are unaware of career possibilities in conservation; but I have the support of a passionate community. Better opportunities will come.”

By this time hopes at home that he would continue the family shipbreaking business, as the only son, were fading. “I’m from an Old Dhaka family,” says Foysal, “making money and settling down are assumed. My father is also a nature-lover. From my mother came the strongest objections.”

The sandpiper "road".

Meanwhile Foysal promised himself to write a paper for international publication on the red headed falcon. “I struggled with English,” he says, “and everybody, even my university professors, discouraged me.” Qualifications first, research later, his professors thought.

How many spoon-billed sandpipers?
After he wrote it he showed a birder friend who said, “If you submit this manuscript to the Oriental Bird Club,” which was the plan, “they’ll throw it in the bin.” Foysal was too disappointed!

Nonetheless Foysal persisted and one day after submitting it, Enamul Haque called him to say the Oriental Bird Club was fascinated with his paper, and with him. His research paper was published in 2010 and Foysal received honorary membership of the Club.

It was also in 2010 that Foysal got the chance to attend a sea turtle conference in Goa. It was the first time his family took notice. “They saw that my career had made a special opportunity for me,” he says.

Offshore. Tide coming in. Time to go.
In 2011, Masters complete, he joined Sayam U Chowdhury in the spoon-billed sandpiper project at a starting salary of 15,000 taka.

“What’s the benefit of a healthy environment?” he posits to explain his career, “Well, we need biodiversity for a healthy human environment. Destroying biodiversity makes us weaker.”

By way of example he mentions ‘gallus gallus,’ the red jungle fowl domesticated 8,000 years ago in India. “Chicken eggs are used to produce vaccines,” he says, “and as a protein source how valuable is the chicken! Without research we could not have accessed this benefit. If it had become extinct, what a loss it would’ve been!”

Last October, Foysal met his Russian colleagues in China. “The future of spoon-billed sandpipers depends entirely on humans.”

Sakib Ahmed and Md Foysal in the speedboat.
Apart from their unique spoon shaped bill and their impressive status as travellers, Foysal enjoys watching sandpipers for their fast, constant movement while foraging. “They’re very hyperactive and it’s like my motto: always be young and enjoy life!”

When asked about marriage he says, “I’ve never met a girl who is really fascinated by nature! If I met one who could live with my career, then okay.”

The tide rises fast in Sonadia. Suddenly after checking several sites it’s time to go. The dry land we walked across is now underwater and the speedboat is waiting just offshore.

When all is said and done.

This article is published in The Daily Star, 
here: Watching Sonadia's Bird Watcher



  1. This story reminds us the rewards of doggedly following your passion. We need people like Md Foysal. By the way the Maori word for a Red-crowned or yellow-crowned parakeet - kākāriki (translation 'green'). I think they are often called "kaka" for short.

    1. Thanks Isabel. Sometimes I think I've lived here for too long! The basic stuff I can forget to explain. For example, kaka means 'paternal uncle' in Bangla, what he was teaching the bird to say. Yes, I was likewise impressed with Md Foysal for as you put it, doggedly following his passion. All too rare in today's world.