A fraternity of birders gathered at the Chambal Safari Lodge to discuss the challenges in conserving bird populations today.
Earlier this month I made my way through fog-bound Uttar Pradesh to Bah, south-east of Agra and close to the once dacoit-infested Chambal ravines, to attend India’s biggest Birdfest. Birdwatching, now simply known as ‘birding’, is not only one of the world’s most popular hobbies, the tourism it generates is estimated to be growing six times faster than any other sector. Indian birdwatching is expanding exponentially, spurred on by digital photography, online groups and resources and local birding and conservation clubs.
The Facebook group, Indian Birds alone has nearly 90,000 members and international sites like the Oriental Bird Clubhouse offers a database of easily accessible images for identification. And now the E-Bird India portal allows birders to upload, not just images, but checklists of all the birds they have seen and exactly where and when they saw them. E-Bird India is the project of a remarkable collaboration of many organisations including the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the Wildlife Institute of India, all uniting under the name Birdcount India. Their aims are ambitious – to document the distribution and abundance of Indian birds, from the small scale (for example, within a city) to the large (across the country) and to enable a better understanding of seasonal movements, and to monitor changes in all these.
The UP festival, the brainchild of Delhi birder Nik Devasar, has been designed to take advantage of the upsurge in enthusiasm highlighted by E Bird – whose representative gave a detailed presentation at the three-day event – and to spread the word further. Having witnessed the huge response that international birding fairs in Britain get, Devasar put the idea of one to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav. The chief minister immediately saw the potential for showcasing his state and agreed. His was not to be the first state-sponsored bird festival in India – they already exist in Uttarakhand and Karnataka and, Gujarat held the first one some year ago. But UP’s was to be the biggest. The location chosen was the Chambal Safari Lodge, whose owners R.P. Singh and Anu Singh were experienced in nature tourism. It was near the beautiful riverine National Chambal Sanctuary, at a reasonably convenient distance from Delhi and very close to the Yadav family power base in Etawah. The chief minister himself inaugurated the first festival in 2015, something he was not able to do this year, as his helicopter could not navigate through dense fog.
If he’d been able to make it, he would have found the festival bigger than in 2015. Attending were 68 international delegates from 26 countries and 324 Indian delegates, including representatives from every single Indian state, not to mention visitors and hundreds of schoolchildren. The delegates varied from leading authors and scientists to enthusiastic and knowledgeable amateurs. In fact, a major theme of this years’ presentations was the important role that citizen scientists can play in saving India’s birds.
One such, given a standing ovation by the audience in the main marquee, is the modest Sumant Rajguru who located the nesting ground of a flock of rare skimmers in a reservoir in Orissa earlier this year. It was a site forest officials had been trying to find for twenty years. Skimmers, examples of beauty in asymmetry, are black and white birds with bright orange-red bills with projecting lower mandibles, that literally skim the surface of a river for certain species of fish. One of the reasons they have become endangered is that they nest on sand banks that can easily be trampled by cattle, disturbed by humans, or just submerged. With the state forest and irrigation departments’ support, Sumant and a local fisherman he recruited to the cause, forsook all other work to protect the nests, scrapes in a sandbank, and for the first time ever documented the skimmers’ breeding behaviour, including the methods they used to keep their chicks cool in searing summer heat.
Another stirring story came from the Doyang Reservoir in Nagaland where enormous numbers of Amur Falcons congregate on their annual migration from Mongolia and Siberia to South Africa. This small falcon survives on insects. Ramki Sreenivasan presented an account of his, conservationist-journalist Bano Haralu’s and their colleagues’ discovery in 2012 of an annual massacre of tens of thousands of these falcons. Local fishermen had adapted their nets and were hanging them near the falcons’ roosts, catching and killing at least 12,000 a day – illegal hunting on a commercial scale. The hunting had been going on for ten years. Again a responsive administration, and a concerted educational campaign by Haralu, Sreenivasan and their colleagues, persuaded the fishermen to give up their catch and today the amur falcon migration is being seen as an opportunity for sustainable nature tourism.
Both these examples had elements in common – passionate and knowledgeable citizen scientists able to devote time and effort to the birds they wanted to protect, local people who were willing to listen to their message (even though this might take time), and a responsive administration. Another point in common was that neither struggle was over. For the birds’ survival, the skimmers’ nesting site has to be protected year after year and the villagers in Nagaland have to remain convinced that nature tourism is an answer and that the amur falcons are a valuable part of Nagaland’s natural heritage.
Other presentations showed how Indian birders could make a contribution to international birdlife. Evgeny Syroechkovski, a field biologist working in the Russian Arctic spoke of his work attempting to save the 35-gram spoon-billed sandpiper, one of the world’s rarest wading birds. Its population has shrunk by 90% over the last thirty years to between only 100 and 200 pairs. Every year the tiny sandpipers set off southwards from the Arctic nesting grounds on their 8,000 km migration. On the way they stop at vital staging posts to feed, specialising in straining small animals from soupy mud. Some sightings have been reported from Bangladesh but none from India and Evgeny appealed to Indian birders to keep a close watch on the Orissa and West Bengal coasts to try to locate and monitor their staging points. The sandpipers are among millions of birds who travel from the Arctic and other northern areas along what is known as the East Asia flyway, to the coasts of Australia and other parts of the southern hemisphere. Habitat destruction along the way and hunting, are lowering numbers dramatically. Forty-six species of shorebirds, besides the diminutive sandpiper are threatened and their populations are shrinking by numbers of between 2 and 8% every year. Without effective national action and international cooperation, many species are likely to face extinction.
Master bird-ringer Balachandran, deputy director of the BNHS, also spoke on migration. In his long career, he has ringed, flagged and satellite tracked over 200,000 birds. In total, the BNHS has ringed one million birds over the last six decades, thousands of which have been recovered outside India. This data established another major migration route through India, the Central Asian Flyway, and Balachandran announced the forthcoming publication of the Indian Birds Migration Atlas, and important new contribution to avian science.
The Smithsonian’s Pamela Rasmussen, author of Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide, also spoke. Her scholarship uncovered the greatest birding scam of the British Raj, which deserves an article all to itself and this year she provided the DNA evidence from museum specimens to confirm what Indian biologists had discovered in the field in Arunachal: a new species for science, the Himalayan Thrush. It’s Latin name Zoothera salimalii, pays tribute to the great ornithologist, Salim Ali.
In her presentation, Rasmussen focused on the birds that may still be waiting to be discovered in India. The north-east, especially Arunachal Pradesh, has opened up for birders only in recent years and this is where new discoveries are most likely. Through her knowledge of the birds of the surrounding region, as well as Indian habitats , she illustrated birds to look out for. The names themselves sounded fantastical: hooded treepie, streak-eared bulbul, vinous-breasted starling, daurian jackdaw and Prince Henry’s laughing thrush to name but a few. This then was a fresh challenge for citizen scientists as well as trained ornithologists.
Unfortunately, the Ripley guide is priced beyond the pockets of most Indian birders, a matter not in Rasmussen’s hands. Much more affordable is the guide authored by the British husband and wife team Carol and Tim Inskipp. Both were present at the birdfest and gave presentations concentrating on the need for current, detailed and reliable data. While Tim traced the progress being made in this field, Carol lay down another challenge to Indian birders and ornithologists: to find out what’s happening in the Himalayas. The climate there is changing and so is the habitat, and though it is not clear which is affecting birds to what extent, it is clear that the ranges of birds – the areas and altitudes where they can be found are changing too. Every year ranges are extending upwards to cooler areas, and research has predicted that they well become so restricted that the survival of many species threatened. The gorgeous blood pheasant’s range has already shifted 700m upwards and one of the most likely species to be adversely affected is the ruddy shelduck, or brahminy duck, the orange and black beauty known in the Hindi heartland, where it is an iconic winter visitors, as the Surkhab. Breeding patterns of many species are disturbed and much more research, Carol argued, is urgently needed.
Asad Rahmani, director of the BNHS for more than 18 years, in his talk brought the audience down from the Himalayas to the plains and what is a very under-rated wildlife habitat – grasslands. In protected areas most grassland has been managed by forestry departments to benefit of rhino and swamp deer. This means seasonal burning. He recounted how he had recommended repeatedly that such burning took place outside the breeding season for grassland birds, but that it still generally took place when the funds for it were released, right in the breeding season. In a masterly overview of the position of grasslands, he pointed out that the largest number of globally threatened species were to be found in India’s grasslands and seventeen of these species are critically endangered. Echoing other speakers, he emphasised the need for more study, more up to date data and more protection.
There was also time to showcase the state’s wildlife in the afternoons when the fog was in retreat, with trips to the Chambal Sanctuary that also supports a population of the Indian skimmer and to floodplain grasslands that are the habitat of the sarus crane, the world’s tallest flying bird. At the wetland small parties of sarus flew overhead in their evening light. However, the birders also noted that the areas of wetland they saw appeared to be contracting.
This then is the irony of the bird festival. It was indeed the nearest thing India has to a birding Kumbh. It informed, and did so excellently and it motivated all those present. Young biologists and enthusiastic birders had the opportunity to meet the best in the world and hear about their inspiring work firsthand. It appeared a true fraternity. However, this positive energy alone is not enough. Reliable data and dedicated scientists, citizen and professional, the co-operation of local stakeholders and a responsive government – all of these components together can protect India’s natural avian heritage.