Celebrating Birds

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 37 No. 2, February 2017

“Sometimes I think that the point of birdwatching is not the actual seeing of the birds, but the cultivation of patience. Of course, each time we set out, there’s a certain amount of expectation we’ll see something, maybe even a species we’ve never seen before, and that it will fill us with light. But even if we don’t see anything remarkable - and sometimes that happens - we come home filled with light anyway.” – Lynn Thomson, Birding with Yeats: A Memoir"

Birders, writers and scientists who gathered at the Uttar Pradesh Bird Festival held in Lucknow in December 2016 were constantly reminded of Lynn Thomson’s words. Birding offers so many life lessons from patience to the joy of living in the moment. 

India is an extraordinary bird haven. A global birding hotspot, it supports over 1,260 avian species, accounting for roughly 13 per cent of the world’s bird count. From Hokarsar in Kashmir to Point Calimere in Tamil Nadu, from Bharatpur in Rajasthan to the Himalayan forests of the Northeast, India’s birdlife occupies a diversity of niches and habitats gifted by a fortuitous combination of geology and climate. A quarter of these are migratory with the majority being non-breeding Palaearctic winter migrants from Europe and Asia. Several species migrate from the Himalaya to the plains… others are mere passage-migrants that use India as a stopover enroute to distant destinations.

Martin Kelsey, a prolific birdwatcher is unapologetic about his fascination for warblers. His advice at the Bird Festival (see "" below) was simple, “The message that I want to convey above all is that whichever group of birds grabs your interest, there are different levels of engagement and it is your curiosity, which drives you from one level to the next. Warblers can be frustratingly difficult to get good views of, and that is when some people simply give up. Even with good views many species can be hard to identify, so simply identifying the warbler you have seen can provide a huge sense of achievement. You have worked hard for that bird. Enjoy that feeling. But then keep watching. Warblers may be hard to identify, but they are delightful to watch, they are constantly on the move. Listen to their songs. Warblers produce some of the most beautiful of bird vocalisations. Well some do.”

He adds, “My love affair with warblers may have raised eyebrows amongst friends, but it has given me unforgettable encounters and taken me to magical places across three continents to watch them. Little did I know when I started looking at the illustrations in my father’s bird books, how much these modest-looking birds would end up meaning to me.”

Those who attended the festival had the opportunity to listen to expert lectures, and attend a plethora of workshops including ones on bird banding, outdoor birding, sketching, and photography. Photo Courtesy: Rajat Sethi
Extraordinary live art underway at the Bird Festival, where international wildlife artists shared their skills with interested participants. Photo Courtesy: Rajat Sethi
Luminaries of the birding world attended the U.P. Bird Festival held in Lucknow in December 2016. The event had the whole-hearted support of the state’s Chief Minister. Photo Courtesy: Rajat Sethi

Discoveries and Rediscoveries Await 

Of course, all is not yet cast in stone as far as avian species are concerned. At the festival, world-renowned ornithologist, Pamela Rasmussen spoke on newly-documented species and splits from the region. She highlighted the rediscovery of Sillem’s Mountain Finch, the new species Bugun liocichla, and how the Great Nicobar Crake (first encountered and photographed by Rajesh Kumar in 2011 on Great Nicobar Island) remains undescribed. She particularly dwelt on the recent splits and possible additions from the Nagaland-Manipur-Mizoram/Myanmar border region, and the Arunachal/Tibet/Myanmar border. Some of the possibilities for future rediscovery she cited included the Szechenyi’s Partridge, Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, Daurian Jackdaw, Chinese Grey Shrike, Brown-breasted Bulbul and the Giant Babax. 

Mumbai’s Shashank Dalvi, among those who first spotted and described the Himalayan Forest Thrush, presented his strategy to identify birds using complex parameters, including analysis of bird song.

Threats Galore

The festival recognised the dark shadow looming over avians too. The range of problems facing birds in India is only getting more acute as bird habitats ranging from wetlands and mangroves, to forests and coasts become increasingly degraded, with some altogether vanishing. A particular threat that participant after participant highlighted came from the pollution and drainage of wetlands, the exploitation of mangroves, felling of old-growth forests and the degradation of grasslands. As Bikram Grewal, author and ornithologist, stated to Sanctuary

“There is a Project Tiger and a Project Elephant, but who looks after the birds? The extinction of tragopans will be no less a tragedy than the death of the last cheetah. Birds continue to be accorded the lowest priority, even 
among conservationists.”

Former director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) Dr. Asad Rahmani echoed these sentiments. He underscored the fact that the practice of seasonal burning of grasslands is destroying globally-threatened species. He also highlighted the status of the critically endangered Manipur Bush Quail and supported Grewal’s point about how it is not just the tiger that needs targeted protection. 

The stunning Indian Skimmer (facing page top), which breeds along the course of the Chambal river, is a favourite subject of birders, a group of whom can be seen on a birding boat safari on the river. Photo Courtesy: Shivaram Subramaniam

Three Red-crested Pochards fly over the Chambal ravines. Photo Courtesy: Shivaram Subramaniam

Environmental activist Anand Arya, working to protect the Dhanauri wetlands in the heart of the Delhi NCR region, where at least 300 avian species, 88 of them migratory, have been listed, wanted the area declared a Ramsar Wetland site. He pointed out that wetlands were vital not only to birds, but humans too. 

A central focus of the academic and conservation sessions was the looming threat from climate change. Author and birding expert Carol Inskipp spoke of the climate impact on Himalayan birds saying, “In 2009, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu, published a short assessment on climate change in the Himalaya. The data shows the vulnerability of biodiversity and increased magnitude of warming with elevation, with areas > 4,000 m. experiencing the highest warming. Annual mean temperatures are expected to increase by 2.90 C by the middle of the century and that milder winters with increased precipitation are projected. In the eastern Himalaya, climate change will be greater than global average, hydrological changes will impact functions and services of wetlands, there will be successional shift from wetlands to terrestrial ecosystems, increased degradation of peat land, bog, swamp and marshland, vertical species migration and possible extinction as well as dominance of invasive species and those thriving in very dry habitats.”

Alarmingly, Inskipp added that a study commissioned by Sikkim reveals an upward shift in altitudinal ranges for 25 bird species (not a comprehensive list) including the Blood Pheasant. In Europe, many bird species have started breeding earlier in response to climate change, but in Sikkim the opposite is true in the case of the White-collared Blackbird, Ashy Drongo, Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush and White-capped Water Redstart, whose breeding has been delayed, perhaps in response to longer dry spells and heavier rainfall. Reduced clutch size has been observed in the Grey-backed Shrike and Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush. The Common Tailorbird previously reported to breed all year round, now only breeds for two to three months in a year.

High altitude species are particularly vulnerable.The Ruddy Shelduck, for example, has not been recorded breeding in Sikkim in the last few years. The problem for birds (and other wildlife too), added Inskipp, is that climate change is occurring so rapidly that many species are unable to respond and adapt fast enough, leading to possible extinction of some species.

An icon of fidelity, the Sarus Crane is the tallest flying bird in the world! This wetland species is famous for its elaborate courtship displays and long-lasting bonds with its mate. Photo Courtesy: Shivaram Subramaniam
The Greenish Warbler is a winter migrant to India. Some members of the species make marathon flights to the sub-continent, all the way from central and eastern Europe. Photo Courtesy: Gurdyal Singh
This endearing little bird of prey is the Indian Scops Owl. They have distinctive ear tufts, and females are larger than their male counterparts. Photo Courtesy: Kavi Nanda

Change is Possible

Despite the dismal scenario, stories that inspire hope and confidence abound. Clearly, all is not lost. Sanctuary readers are aware of how the massive hunting of migrating Amur Falcons (migrating from Mongolia to Africa, and doing a stopover here) in the Doyang Reservoir in Nagaland was stopped by a group of naturalists with help from journalist cum conservationist and Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award 2016 winner Bano Haralu (Sanctuary Asia Vol. XXXVI No. 12, December 2016). Those who hunted them for a living are now profiting from sustainable tourism. Ramki Sreenivasan, who has been documenting these migrating falcons, expounded on this amazing conservation success at the festival. A presentation from Odisha showed how an ordinary citizen, Suman Rajguru, set all priorities aside to protect beaches for months on end, where a collection of Indian Skimmers was breeding.

Sanctuary intends to work with such dedicated, credible, knowledgeable individuals and groups in the years to come. In our view, ornithology and birding offer both livelihoods and a way to mitigate and adapt to the worst impacts of climate change. Towards 
this end, all of us owe a debt of gratitude to the government of Uttar Pradesh for organising this vital meeting and to the scores of birders who worked ceaselessly to turn this into what promises to be a meaningful, annual feature.

The U.P. Bird Festival (December 2 to 4, 2016)

The organisers of the Uttar Pradesh Bird Festival 2016 pulled off a coup of sorts with their selection of speakers and delegates alone. Ornithologist-autograph hunters could have made a rich haul those three days at the Chambal Safari Lodge, off Bah in Agra district, where many of the who’s-who from the world of Indian avian studies strode about under the thick blanket of fog that almost perpetually covered the tented resort.

There were Carol and Tim Inskipp, well-known co-authors of field guides to birds in the Indian subcontinent; there was Pamela Rasmussen, author of Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide, Stephen Moss, author and television-producer, Dr. Asad Rahmani, who headed Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) for 16 years, Bikram Grewal, author of several books on Indian birds, Jonathan Meyrav, the Tourism director for the Israel Ornithological Center; David Lindo,  author, broadcaster and naturalist; Jullian Mathews, Founder of TOFTigers, Jim Lawerence of Birdlife, Tim Appleton, the Founder UK Bird Fair… to name only a few of the stalwarts. Around 25 countries were represented, including speakers from Spain, Israel, Uganda, Burma, Russia and the Philippines. Russian ornithologist Evgeny Syroechkovskiy talked about the threatened birds on the East Asian Australian Flyway, in particular about the endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Dr. S. Balachandran, deputy director at BNHS, who has ringed birds and done migration studies for decades now, had many an interesting detail about migratory species and their stopovers. Jonathan Meryev from Israel too made a compelling case for cross-country collaborations to put a stop to mass trapping and killing of migratory birds. Bill Thompson from the U.S. and David Lindo from the U.K. spoke about working to garner community interest and support. In fact, Lindo mooted and got elected a national bird for Britain and had an interesting tale to tell about how he got people to vote. 

Bird festivals of this scale are a great opportunity for state governments to both showcase their own endowments of birdlife and to learn from international experts. In fact, similar festivals across the country can be a vital way to highlight beleaguered habitats and intensely network with ornithologists worldwide, both to learn from experts who follow best practices and to seek ideas and obtain funds for specific conservation programmes.

Note: This article on the Uttar Pradesh Bird Festival has been put together by Sanctuary for the U.P.  State Government.

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