Birders participating in the annual Asian Waterbird Census say that Akkulam is seeing a dip in numbers while at Punchakari it’s looking up

Aakulam is losing its charm as a favoured destination of water birds. This was revealed during a bird count undertaken by birders in the city. It is in connection with the annual Asian Waterbird Census (AWC), a voluntary waterfowl monitoring project, currently going on across the continent and in Australia.

In tandem, the birders in the city too have been on a counting spree, collecting information on the various indigenous and migratory waterfowl in Thiruvananthapuram district, which has more than 80 km of coastline and boasts thriving wetlands of the likes of Akkulam, Veli, and Punchakari, near Vellayani.

The wetlands of Akkulam and Veli were the first to be surveyed. Says Kalesh Sadasivan, a member of TNHS and one 15 birders and forest officials in the survey team: “Not only did we note a decline in the number of species but also in the density of the birds.” Only 33 species of birds were counted as opposed to 50 in the past.

“There could be a range of reasons for this decline. At Akkulam, a large portion of the lake is covered with water hyacinth, which dissuades birds such as ducks and teals that need exposed waterfront to thrive. Waders, meanwhile, thrive on shallow water and mud flats. Encroachments along the banks of the lake may have put paid to their numbers. Exotic fish such as tilapia have been introduced to the lake, which, literally, eats up the native fish diversity, which in turn affects the bird population,” says Kalesh.

Pollution seems to be on the rise in the lake, particularly from feeder canals such as Amazhinjam canal. The Pied Kingfisher is considered by experts as a live biological indicator of healthy and unpolluted water bodies. Only two Pied Kingfishers were observed in the survey. As for Veli, experts feel that tourism and plying speedboats on the lake have led to the decline there.

The wetlands of Akkulam are also known to be a favourite breeding ground for Purple Herons. “Even their numbers have come down drastically. The dredging of the lake, while much welcome, seems to have wiped out the dense reeds in which these waterfowls make their nests,” adds Kalesh.

The local census, which is also set to survey the waterfowl found in wetlands of Ashtamudi and Polachira in Kollam district, apart from water bodies in and near Nagercoil, is being conducted by seasoned birders from Travancore Natural History Society (TNHS), a city-based biodiversity and wildlife conservation NGO, in association with the Department of Forests and Wildlife, Government of Kerala. The team also hopes to cover the entire coastal regions from Poovar to Varkala to Neendakara and ending in Purakkad in Alappuzha.

However, there was much to chirp about when the team of volunteers headed to Punchakari for the next part of the survey. And that too despite overcast skies and drizzles – not that conducive an environment for birding. “Overall it’s been good birding at Punchakari, helped much by the small pockets of cultivation in the area, which is necessary for attracting birds. Significantly, there has been an increase in the number of waders from last year, particularly Sandpipers of Wood, Marsh, Common and Green varieties,” says M. Ramesh, another member of the survey team. “Last week, we also sighted a Painted Stork, a migratory bird, in the area,” says the birder.

Jayakumar Sharma P.K., Assistant Conservator of Forests, who, on behalf of the Department of Forests and Wildlife, is giving support to the initiative, adds: “For a while now, as part of social forestry initiatives, the Department has been looking at biodiversity conservation in populated areas. As such we’ve been studying the flora and fauna in kavus, identifying turtle nesting sites along the coast, and so on. We’re actively participating and giving support to surveys such as AWC to see what steps we can take with regards to bird conservation. What are the endangered species? Why are they endangered? Are they endangered because of the ignorance of the public. If so, can we put up signboards to indicate nests and breeding grounds, and the like.”

The next part of the survey is on January 11 at Ashtamudi and the Needakara coast, followed by Polachira on January 12. The wetlands in and around Nagerkovil, Kanyakumari and Thirunelveli is on January 18 and 19.

WINGED INHABITANTS

AKKULAM-VELI

Species of waterfowl such as Little Grebe, Pheasant-tailed Jacana and Large Egret, which are usually found during this time of the year, were not recorded. Also, there were too few numbers of significant species such as Indian Shag, Oriental Darter, Moorhen and different kinds of Plovers. However, the birders seem buoyed by sightings of “stragglers” such as Little or the Saunder’s Tern, Indian Shag, Wooly-necked Stork, Painted Snipe, Purple Heron and Grey Heron.

PUNCHAKARI

The birders noted “good numbers” of Golden Plover and over 50 Black-winged Stilts, besides a couple of Marsh Harriers, which are also winter visitors, a couple of Spot-billed ducks and, significantly, nine Lesser Whistling Teals. They also saw a pair of Lesser Sand Plovers.

The count is on…

The AWC, which happens every January, is part of a voluntary global monitoring programme, the International Waterbird Census, coordinated by Wetlands International. AWC, initiated in 1987 in India, has grown rapidly to cover Asia, from Afghanistan to Japan, Southeast Asia and Australasia. The survey in India is led Bombay Natural History Society, IBCN, Birdlife International and Wetlands International.