Annual migration of birds across the Indian subcontinent has begun

As billions of birds take wing for migration, one of Nature’s greatest spectacles, over 400 species congregate across the Indian subcontinent. Where can you see them?

October 13, 2022 12:51 pm | Updated October 21, 2022 04:47 pm IST

Blue-tailed Bee-eater

Blue-tailed Bee-eater | Photo Credit: T Arulvelan

Watch | Annual migration of birds has begun. Where can you see them?

Last month, in a first, bird watchers from across the country congregated at Bhuj in Kutch district, Gujarat. They documented eight birds — European roller, red-backed and red-tailed shrike, spotted flycatcher, rufous-tailed scrub-robin, greater white throat, common cuckoo and blue-cheeked bee-eater — that landed in Gujarat after marathon flights from Central Asia and Europe.

“These birds, called passage migrants, take a short break to rest and rejuvenate in western India before crossing the Indian Ocean to reach their wintering grounds in Africa,” says P Jeganathan of Tamil Birders Network who took part in the survey, adding that one can catch a glimpse of these birds only during this short window at the stopover.

Over 400 species of migratory birds are reported to visit India annually at this time of the year signifying the beginning of migration. They take nine flyways (including the Central Asian Flyway that covers 30 countries along with India) across the world and some unusual routes during this flight. “It’s an exciting time as a number of incredibly beautiful birds pass through India, and many stay here for the winter,” says Bengaluru-based Ashvin Viswanathan, a scientist at Bird Count India, which supports listing and monitoring of birds across India.

Two weeks ago, the greenish warbler arrived in Bengaluru, after flying thousands of kilometres from the mountains of Central Asia. “The ashy drongos that breed in the Himalayas have started coming. I am hoping to see flycatchers next week,” adds Ashvin.

In Chennai, water birds are among the first to arrive and can be spotted around Pallikaranai, Sholinganallur marsh, Kelambakkam and Pulicat.

“We encounter a variety of migratory birds in different habitats,” says Aravind AM, a birder in Chennai who documents bird behaviour on his YouTube channel Neenglaum Aagalaam Birdwatcher. “Multiple small birds in different sizes can be found at the edge of wetlands — these are grouped as waders and many of them visit us. Among sandpipers which arrive quite early, wood sandpipers and common sandpipers are easily found in shallow water-bodies,” he adds.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit | Photo Credit: Col Pankaj Sharma (Retd)

Chennai also gets species like yellow wagtail, citrine wagtail and white-wagtail that can be seen at Pallikaranai marsh (Marshland Park and Radial Road), Sholinganallur or Perumbakkam marsh, near Mohamed Sathak College.

Shrubs, even in urban gardens host migratory warblers, which are dull brown birds, slightly smaller than common mynas. “If you hear a sharp ‘check check’ call in your garden now, it could be Blyth’s reed-warbler,” says Aravind adding that multiple flycatcher species like Asian brown, blue-throated blue flycatcher, Tickell’s blue flycatcher and the enchanting Indian Paradise flycatcher visit Chennai.

In Delhi, shore birds like bar-tailed godwit, common ringed plover, forest wagtail and Indian blue robin have been spotted at NCR and areas around Sultanpur National Park. “These birds are migrating from their summer habitat in Jammu & Kashmir towards Kerala. This year, we are noticing an early movement, perhaps because of early winters in Europe,” says Col Pankaj Sharma (Retd), who runs Indian Birds on Facebook, which has 2.7 lakh members.

As birds migrate along the ancient routes, scientists are using high-tech tools like bird ringing, radio tracking, GPS tracking, and satellite telemetry to study their amazing journeys. Recently, a pallid harrier, a raptor was satellite tagged and its route was monitored. The bird travelled 6,000 kilometres and went up to Russia.

Grey wagtail

Grey wagtail | Photo Credit: T Arulvelan

Organisations like the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) have been a pioneer in studying bird migration since the 1920s spearheaded by the late Dr Salim Ali, the Birdman of India. This year, the flight path of Bala, the black-tailed godwit named after renowned expert on bird migration S Balachandran, was tracked by BNHS using a GPS device.

In April, the bird left Mumbai for South-western Siberia (covered 5,000 kilometres in 47 days) and it returned after five months, taking a five-day flight, covering 4,200 kilometres. “This proves the birds’ site fidelity (returning to the same site that they are used to). We can use the data to know more on the routes, stoppage sites, countries it has visited and come up with an action plan towards conservation,” says S Sivakumar, scientist at BNHS.

With the traditional ringing method, recovery rates are poor: of seven lakhs birds that are ringed, the recovery rate is a mere 3,500 birds. Satellite telemetry, though a costly affair, helps tracking accurate, real time data.

“Earlier, ringed birds from Bharatpur, Point Calimere or Chilika were recovered and reported by birding societies in Central Asia or European countries. Similarly, birds arriving from Siberia or Arctic regions were reported back. Most of the shore birds that breed in the Arctic come to tropical countries like India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and some go up to Africa,” says Ramesh Kumar of BNHS.

Sivakumar adds that the role of citizen science forums, especially contributions on e-bird forums has been immense and vital. S Balachandaran, scientist and deputy director of BNHS at Kanyakumari, who has been documenting shore birds for four decades at Rameswaram, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, Pulicat in Andhra, Manipur, and West Bengal, says during the annual migration, 45 species of shore birds including the black-tailed godwit, ducks, geese, and flamingoes come to India from July onwards. “Shore birds are long-distant migrants from the Arctic. During October to March, you can find little stints in lakhs at Kodikkarai Sanctuary.”

Where to see them?
Nanjarayan Tank Bird Sanctuary in Tiruppur recorded a lone broad-billed sandpiper, a first sighting in the inland water body in the State. The bird winters at the coastal belt of the eastern part of Africa, South Asia, and South East Asia. 
B R Mahesh of Dharapuram Nature Society in Koduvai has spotted ruddy standstone, a rare visitor from Northern Europe at Uppar Dam. It winters in coastal areas like Point Calimere, Kanyakumari, Tiruchendur and Rameshwaram
Various species of gulls and terns are predominantly found along the shore at Pazhaverkadu(Pulicat ) lake and Adayar Estuary in Chennai. Indian pitta and Forest wagtails, though not common, can be found walking on the forest floor, looking for insects under leaf litter. Can be seen at the forest campuses like Guindy National Park, IIT, and Theosophical society, Nanmangalam Reserve Forest, other campuses around Tambaram, small woodland patches along ECR. Permission may be required to visit some of these places.

Birders like Angeline Mano, a Nature educator with the Salem Ornithological Foundation, look forward to the flurry of bird movement. She plans to cover as many as 300 wetlands in Salem and also parts of the Eastern Ghats.

“We spotted four grey wagtails at Yercaud and one common sandpiper at Stanley Reservoir in Salem, signalling the arrival of first two winter visitors. Migratory birds do not breed here, they come for food and to escape the harsh winters. We create awareness on these aspects.”

In Valparai, a hill station in the Anamalai mountain ranges of the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu, the arrival of grey wagtails, a migratory bird from the Himalayas is celebrated by distributing sweets and with posters that pack information on the slender, grey bird. Says K Selvaganesh, a birder and teacher, “For the last seven years, the bird has kept its date with Valparai, an indication of a thriving, healthy ecosystem here.”

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