Scripting an almanac, one bird at a time

Last flight? Migratory pelicans and painted storks at a small pond near Dholera, 110 km from Ahmedabad
Last flight? Migratory pelicans and painted storks at a small pond near Dholera, 110 km from Ahmedabad
Photo: AFP

RAMIT SINGAL, a 22-year-old engineering student, was puzzled. The Common Sandpiper, a small dust-coloured bird that migrates every winter from Russia to India, had been late arriving. Instead of getting to Manipal, (where Singal studies), in early August, the birds had arrived in mid-September. “Other migrants, like the Lesser Sand Plover, were also late,” he says.
In Mysore, a few hundred kilometres away, A Shivaprakash was pondering over another ornithological question. Being a scientist at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, puzzles don’t ruffle him, but the decline in the number of water birds in the lakes around Mysore was still troubling.
Till a decade ago, his birding group counted nearly 3 lakh migratory birds every season across 200 small and big lakes in Mysore, Chamarajanagar and Coorg districts. “But in the past seven or eight years,” he sighs, “there’s been a drastic reduction. I don’t think we have counted more than 50,000 birds.”
Birdwatchers in other parts of the country have also been alarmed by the decline in the numbers of migratory birds and the increasingly late arrivals of species that do come.
Unfortunately, in the absence of any long-term monitoring data on Indian bird species, it’s impossible to evaluate these changes scientifically, with a certainty that goes beyond anecdotal evidence and conjecture. Without the reference point that this data constitutes — referred to as a baseline in scientific parlance — it is impossible to say whether the shifts reported by birdwatchers are routine fluctuations or indicators of a far graver problem. Ornithologists find themselves in the position of a football referee tasked with calling a goal in a field that has no posts.
“At present, we suspect even so-called common species such as Common Drongo, Indian Roller, Hoopoe, Magpie Robin and Common Nightjar have declined due to habitat destruction and extensive use of pesticides,” says Dr Asad Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). “But we don’t have good scientific data to back this impression.”
Now, MigrantWatch, a ‘citizen science’ programme that relies on the observations of hundreds of amateur birdwatchers like Singal and Shivaprakash, is changing that.
The programme, started by Suhel Quader, an ecologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bengaluru, has built up a meticulous database of common winter migrants.
Birdwatchers from across the country upload detailed observations from their birding trips on the programme’s website. Quader and his team then collate it, charting the arrival and departure of migrant species, and tracking their movement through the country.
Anniversaries might be irrelevant in the natural world, but for MigrantWatch, the five years it has just completed is a milestone that marks significant progress towards establishing a baseline.
From monitoring just nine migratory species when it started, it now monitors 246 species, focussing on 30 common and easily identified migrants. Over 600 birders have contributed to this database, which just hit 19,000 observations.
After a slow start, interest in the programme has shot up. “More people have joined us in the past year-and-a-half,” says Quader proudly, “than in the first four years put together.”
More significantly, the observational dots are joining up and the faint outline of patterns emerging. For 20 species, MigrantWatch has accumulated 200 or more observations, and for another six, it has more than 500 observations each.