Environment

When Chennai raced to count all its bird species

A red-vented bulbul in Chennai, spotted during Madras Bird Race 2020

A red-vented bulbul in Chennai, spotted during Madras Bird Race 2020   | Photo Credit: Venkataraghavan Ramaswamy

160 birders from Chennai, many of them first-timers, spent 12 hours across the various birding hotspots in the city as part of the Madras Bird Race, spotting 171 species

When trying to spot birds, you don’t always look up. Often, you look down amid reeds, peer through thorn bushes, squint at faraway landfills. Chennaiites did all of that and more this Sunday, spending well over 12 hours of the day in a community exercise called the Madras Bird Race.

About 171 species were spotted this year, considerably fewer than last year. First-time birders were many. These included yours truly who spent a considerable amount of time stifling yawns and catching up on naps in the car, when being taken from spot to spot. Do not judge me. I woke up at 4.30 am. I would ask why birders enjoy this, but the answer is abundantly clear.

Spot-billed pelicans in Chennai, spotted during Madras Bird Race 2020

Spot-billed pelicans in Chennai, spotted during Madras Bird Race 2020   | Photo Credit: Venkataraghavan Ramaswamy

For instance, that Perumbakam wetland is a little haven for birds is well known. What I didn’t know, however, is how amusing it is to see two large pelicans swimming amid a flock of fist-sized lesser cormorants. Like loveable misfits in a high school movie, squabbling away. Our guide, Yuvan M, told us that these two species often fish together: “Everywhere you see, pelicans and lesser cormorants have this mutualism. And in the confusion, the fish that come up to the surface are caught up by terns.”

In that wetland alone, we saw more than 50 kinds of birds: from the staid, four feet high great egret, to the little, iridescent blue-tailed bee eater with its blue tail, green wings and brown chest. The latter was snacking on a dragonfly, which is how I learnt that bee-eaters don’t eat only bees.

Northern shovelers at Chennai’s Elcot SEZ, spotted during Madras Bird Race 2020

Northern shovelers at Chennai’s Elcot SEZ, spotted during Madras Bird Race 2020   | Photo Credit: Venkataraghavan Ramaswamy

Perumbakam also gave us a glimpse of a mighty ‘Shaheen’ peregrine falcon, perched far away on the upper rungs of a telecom tower, happily oblivious to the excitement it had caused among starstruck humans on the ground. Equally unimpressed seemed the osprey, seated so far that only binoculars could glimpse it.

Trucks and bikes tore past us on the road, creating a cloak of noise that could not be ignored, no matter how firmly we turned our backs to them to face the birds. Very few calls managed to cut through that clutter and reach us — or reach Yuvan, since the rest of us were too clueless to identify much. A lapwing made its presence felt through birdcall, and whistling ducks whistled overhead freely as they flapped over the land. The clamorous reed warbler was clamorous. The oriental skylark was also heard — its cry is the opposite of unique, and yet remains one of its distinguishing features. As Yuvan explained, the bird picks up the calls of local birds wherever it goes, so much so that skylarks in different regions sound different from each other. Almost as if they had learnt the local language.

A bee-eater bird in Chennai, spotted during Madras Bird Race 2020

A bee-eater bird in Chennai, spotted during Madras Bird Race 2020   | Photo Credit: Venkataraghavan Ramaswamy

Godwits, however, eluded us, and a number of other birdwatchers as well. This was worrying news, especially in these days of reducing migrations and uncharacteristic flight patterns. Eventually, however, news reached us that some had been spotted in Pallikaranai. A small comfort.

As we moved towards Pallikaranai ourselves, we stopped within sight of the massive landfill. It was across a stretch of marsh and mudflat. On the flats strolled some grey headed lapwings, along with some bright specks which, on close inspection through binoculars, turned out to be yellow wagtails. Perched nearby was a solitary spotted dove, but hovering on the horizon, above the landfill itself, were numerous black kites. “So you can see that the black kite is clearly not a raptor, but a scavenger, “ observed Yuvan.

A bee-eater bird in Chennai, spotted during Madras Bird Race 2020

A bee-eater bird in Chennai, spotted during Madras Bird Race 2020   | Photo Credit: Venkataraghavan Ramaswamy

As we took a U-turn and headed back, now driving along the opposite stretch of marsh, we noticed someone whom Chennai’s birdwatchers had been dying to meet. The greater flamingo should have arrived in flocks by now, but this year managed to only reach Pulicat so far. But here, standing in the sun with not a bird nearby, was a solitary member of its species. We watched the lone flamingo for a while, before heading to our next direction.

At Madras Crocodile Bank, we were understandably distracted. Between gazing at snakes and watching crocodiles clamp their jaws to startle herons, we managed to see some purple rumped sunbirds, an Asian brown flycatcher, and some fledgling night herons. A magpie robin teased us with its call for a while, but we eventually gave up and walked out for a mid-afternoon stroll through the village opposite the park.

Here, our hardiness was first rewarded by a parakeet nestled in the hollow of a bald coconut tree. As we walked through grassy stretches, crossing wild almond tress and rows of palms, a host of others started appearing. Small, brightly green bee-eaters, open bill storks, red rumped swallows... Even a kestral, brick red with black wing tips, which seemed to be wondering what we were doing out under the sun. We heeded its judgement, and eventually headed back indoors, out of our winged friends’ territories and into our own.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 5:38:42 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/chennais-bird-species-are-counted-at-madras-bird-race-2020/article30674776.ece

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