Bird races are becoming a favourite winter activity amongst bird watchers in the country

The dainty demoiselle cranes are the first group of fastidious feathered friends among all migratory birds that take to the skies to traverse nearly 5,000 km to come to India. They fly across international borders and foreign frontiers, deftly negotiating and soaring over the mighty Himalayan ranges.

For thousands of years, as the summer months and rainy days give way to cold winter, millions of birds migrate from snowbound regions in China, Mongolia, Siberia and Russia in the northern hemisphere. Leaving their homeland, many birds take off in collective batches in search of food and fodder. Invariably, every winged visitor travels after amassing into mini-cloud formations as there is safety in numbers.

Without a passport and visa, they come to the tropical Indian subcontinent in hordes as there is assured sunshine and abundant ration. A surfeit of sunlight means loads of green grass, grains, fish, plenty of plants and innumerable insects which serve the purpose of morsels for vegetarian and non-vegetarian birds.

An astounding 1,250 species of birds are found in the Indian subcontinent. Taking advantage of this bounty of feathered creatures, the hobby of bird-watching has matured in the last 25 to 30 years. This has also helped breed a bevy of trigger-happy photographers lugging expensive camera equipment. Further, the concept of bird races and big bird days have also blossomed and today they are being organised in 20 cities and towns across the country.

Bird races comprise a 12-hour face-to-face with feathered friends and are becoming extremely popular. Being a dawn to dusk event, teams of bird-watchers fan out in different directions and spend the entire day bird watching in the city or town limits. This means any team starting at 6 a.m. will have covered 10 to 50 km by 6 p.m. when they stop to analyse their total tally of birds logged. Moving around in vehicles, cycles or even merely trekking or walking can reap rich rewards in locating birds with binoculars.

“Organised as annual winter events, bird lovers huddle into crews and get intensely involved in a frenzy of spotting and recording bird species. A bird race usually culminates at the end of the day with a function rewarding the top three teams who have sighted the most number of species and also for sighting the rare bird of the day. It is an opportunity for interaction with renowned ornithologists and share field notes. After all, the business of bird watching is to reveal the relation between man and his environment,” explains Neeraj Srivastav, coordinator of Lucknow Bird Race.

If one has the inclination, even a fleeting glance at any of our Indian countryside will easily reveal at least 50 indigenous species, ranging from crows to mynas to munias and even the occasional house sparrow. Birds such as the lapwings, bulbuls, drongos, kingfishers, kites and shikras lurking in the undergrowth can also be seen by the keen eyes of a bird watcher. Water birds like water-hens, moorhens, egrets, cormorants and black-winged stilts are also some of the common resident species. However, a large variety of assorted ducks are easily visible alongside the local spot-bill ducks and coots in these winter months because the comparatively mild Indian winter lures migratory species.

The first bird race formally started in 2005 in Bombay and today has numerous offshoots and branched off into a multitude of birding activities. The current season has already commenced as bird race was completed in Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode on November 18 while Lucknow had its bird race on December 9. Another race was conducted on December 15 within the 29 sq km area of the Bharatpur bird sanctuary and Nagpur went about racing for avifauna on December 16. Many more are slated in the coming Sundays in different parts of country until the migratory birds fly out of the country by March-end.

Aasheesh Pittie, a prominent ornithologist and bibliophile from Hyderabad, says, “Every hobby serves a purpose, and that is spending spare time doing something one enjoys. Many a time it becomes your main concern, and then you pursue it like a professional. Bird-watching creates a heightened sense of awareness of one’s natural surroundings in general and of birds in particular. Birdwatchers do contribute towards nature conservation at both micro and macro levels depending upon their involvement in the hobby. Let us not forget that ‘merely bird-watching, check-listing and publishing’ is actually the collection of data over time, which is the base for taking decisions that might affect the natural landscape of an area.”