Winter migration of birds to the Indian subcontinent begins

Flamingoes at Point Calimere   | Photo Credit: S Venugopal


The greenish warblers have arrived in millions, after flying thousands of kilometres from the mountains of Central Asia. The forested areas of the Indian peninsula are now aflutter with high-pitched sounds of this wispy little, olive green bird that goes sti-ti-ti-ti-ti-si... “These birds arrive singing,” says Ganeshwar SV, founder of Salem Ornithological Foundation. “These are territorial songs staking claim to their trees or little segments of forest as they settle down. The songs echo across the foothills, plains, plateaus, and hill ranges now,” he adds.

Every year, between September and October, one can witness movement of birds in large numbers signifying the start of migration. It is the annual dispersal of birds from the northern hemisphere to the Indian subcontinent including Sri Lanka. “Like our highways, we have nine flyways in the world that the waterbirds use for migration,” says S Sivakumar, scientist at Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). “For Asia, it is the Central Asian Flyway that covers 30 countries including India at the tail end with huge landmass and habitat variations, especially the wetlands.”

Watch | Winter migration of birds begins

When daylight shrinks and there is shortage of food supply at the breeding sites, the birds take the cue and start migrating towards wintering sites in the South. The return journey begins in March or April. While the shorebirds like waders and ducks, and raptors come from Siberia and Russia, birds like the European flycatcher, brown-breasted flycatcher, and barn swallow come from Europe. “India receives birds from 29 countries during migration. In Tamil Nadu, Point Calimere Sanctuary on the East Coast sees migratory birds in lakhs. The ‘little stint’ that breeds in Siberia — a small bird that weighs just about 20 grams — crosses 8,000 kilometres to get here,” says Sivakumar.

Grey wagtail

Grey wagtail   | Photo Credit: Selvaganesh K

Another common migratory bird that has kept its date is the grey wagtail. “It comes from Central Asia and Russia and has already landed at forested areas of South India,” says Ashvin Viswanathan, a bird watcher for two decades, and a research associate at Nature Conservation Foundation based in Bengaluru.

Get started
  • Get yourself a pair of binoculars, and a field guide and you can watch migratory birds from home.
  • The greenish warbler can be seen anywhere across Peninsular India. Their breeding ground is scattered across Western and Eastern Europe, and also parts of Russia and China. During winter, a huge number of birds come down from all of these places to spend six or eight months here before making the return trip to Europe during April.
  • The Indian pita that breeds in the Himalayan ranges migrates from Central India to the South to escape the harsh winters. The pin-coloured common rosefinch from Himachal can be sighted at the Nilgiris often, feeding on grains by the roadside.
  • Pallikaranai in Chennai attracts a large number of flamingoes, varieties of ducks, and waders. Pulicat Lake on the Tamil Nadu-Andhra border hosts flamingoes whose numbers sometime cross 50,000. Huge numbers of ducks and waders can be seen at Chilika Lake in Orissa. Other notable sites to see migratory birds are the Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur, Rajasthan and Khijadia Bird Sanctuary in Jamnagar, Gujarat.

At Valparai in Anamalai forest range of the Western Ghats near Coimbatore, a team of Young Birders Network welcomed this visitor with posters that carried a thank-you note for making the trip. “For the past five years, every September we wait for the call of the grey wagtail,” says K Selvaganesh, who teaches at Cinchona Government School and mentors his students in bird watching. “It can be seen easily in wooded areas, elevations, and at streams near hills. It feeds on insects and maintains the balance of the food chain.”

Birders aflutter

The arrival of migratory birds has cheered up the birding community in the Nilgiris. “The black-and-white Japanese flycatcher, Asian brown flycatcher and verditer flycatcher can be easily spotted at common places like Sim’s Park in Coonoor, Botanical Garden in Udhagamandalam, and Doddabetta, the highest peak in the Nilgiris,” says Aggal Shivalingam, who has been into bird watching for over 15 years and guides tourists on the same.

European bee-eater

European bee-eater   | Photo Credit: S Senthil Kumar

Some birds are passage migrants, like the spotted flycatcher, rufous-tailed scrub robin, and European roller. They migrate through a large part of Western India and go to Africa to spend the winter there. The amur falcons pass through India in December. “A small population of European bee-eaters believed to be a passage migrant stayed put in Tamil Nadu for six months,” says Ganeshwar. S Senthil Kumar, a school headmaster and a member of the Salem Ornithological Foundation has tracked the arrival and departure of the European bee-eater for three years at Stanley Reservoir near Mettur Dam in Salem, one of South India’s largest dams. “It’s a vibrant and colourful bird that can be spotted anywhere in India. Mettur Dam wetlands attract thousands of marsh sandpipers, Caspian and white terns, green shanks, red shanks, and gulls. We noticed that the brown shrikes have a high rate of fidelity towards location and keep returning to the same spot every year,” says Ganeshwar.

Curlew sandpiper

Curlew sandpiper   | Photo Credit: R Karthikeyan

This year, because of the COVID-19, bird watchers are documenting migratory birds from their backyard. “There is an increase in the number of bird watchers. They are documenting their observations on e-bird online platforms, as a result of which we are able to see migration in action, for example ,in the form of maps on the migratory route of birds,” says Ashvin as he waits to catch a glimpse of a small brown bird called Blyth’s reed warbler. “The first bird will arrive in Bengaluru soon. It is exciting to welcome these birds that will be a part of our world for the next six or eight months.”

Northern Shoveller

Northern Shoveller   | Photo Credit: R Karthikeyan

Says Sivakumar, “We have to conserve our wetlands to ensure that the birds get enough food, gain weight, and are healthy enough to make a safe return flight.”

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 11:08:07 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/winter-migration-of-birds-to-the-indian-subcontinent-begins/article32716656.ece

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