Citizen birding during a pandemic: The near and the far of it

Yellow-billed babblers in combat mode, on the terrace of Aravind AM's house in Madipakkam.  Photo: Aravind AM

Yellow-billed babblers in combat mode, on the terrace of Aravind AM's house in Madipakkam. Photo: Aravind AM

H ave you browsed through recent eBird lists? If you have not, run your eyes through it, and we will wait for you.

Did anything stand out?

Stopping at a recent page of eBird lists for Chennai, let us take a dekko at two entries, hardly unique but revelatory nevertheless.

One reports two Black-rumped Flamebacks being sighted on 2 November 2020 from GRN-Tempe, 5th Main Road, Nanganallur. Another, made the same day, reports an Oriental Darter in flight over AM House in Madipakkam.

Subramanian Sankar had jotted down the observation made from his apartment complex GRN-Tempe, and Aravind AM from his independent house, named AM House, in Madipakkam, respectively.

Over the last few months, due to the pandemic, bird data from urban, residential spaces, have dominated the lists, as against spaces celebrated as birding hotspots.

In many instances, the birders were only continuing with their pre-pandemic practice of recording birds from their immediate backyard — both Subramanian and Aravind belong to that category — in addition to observations from their regular jaunts to birding spots. Continuing to bird from his terrace during the intense lockdown and even later, Aravind has the distinction of sending lists to eBird without a day’s break for an impressive passage of time.

“I am maintaining a bird-listing streak that is close to 600 days long,” Aravind volunteers more specific information.

Gaps in knowledge

Many a time and oft, “terrace data” would be about birds that turn up as regularly and predictably as the milk vendor. Now, one has to be on the guard against labelling birds as common species. Doing so betrays flawed thinking, as it often glosses over gaps in the overall understanding of these species as they interact with the local environment. Watching even the so-called common species and documenting their numbers and observing the patterns they follow, can make for discoveries that are not only fascinating but also essential to ecological planning.

In the months spent locked-down, bird researcher P. Hopeland spent some evenings counting rose-ringed parakeets that winged past the terrace of his house on Gandhi Road in Velachery, behind IIT-M.

“My assumption is that overall, the parakeets flying by would be around 700 — one evening I counted over 500. Going by that flock, I am beginning to wonder if there are more people feeding parakeets in urban spaces than we realise. Of course, you cannot make that inference based on a single observation. There are many unknowns, because it is just one person counting parakeets in the middle of nowhere,” explains Hopeland. “I am in the dark about these parakeets’ roosting and breeding patterns. One would assume that these birds would use tree hollows. Normally, the assumption is that we don’t have as many trees as we should. So, how far are they going? If they are living within the city, is there a pattern that is driving it? From my terrace, I could see that they come from much further north, with very few really staying on the IIT-M side. These are birds that are definitely going to the roost. They are south-west bound. They must be using the same roost, as they are making a beeline for what to me still remains an unknown destination. It happens in a matter of two hours. In Rajasthan, I have seen a huge flock roosting on a single tree that it looked like a decorated Christmas tree. Supposing we find out where they are roosting, we can probably attempt to address disturbances, if any.”

Also Read: Living next door to birds

What Hopeland is driving at is that if many others spread across Chennai simultaneously studied the movement of parakeets, counting them and recording their observations, it might be possible to puzzle out these birds’ roosting, breeding and feeding patterns, as various pieces of the zigsaw would fit in.

The vital aspect of such exercises is that through data, areas for intervention, if any, can be identified.

“I suspect that many people are feeding parakeets in urban spaces. In my opinion, this causes problems. There are people who feed parakeets boiled rice. In such cases, there is the risk of these birds’ food diversity reducing, and the birds may end up maintaining a nutritional level that is lower than what is desirable. When these birds fend for themselves, they may be managing a diverse diet, including fruits, that increases the odds that they get all the necessary nutrients,” elaborates Hopeland.

With citizen data coming in about a wide range of species, including the so-called common species, it would be possible to arrive at an ecological plan for the entire metro, says Hopeland.

‘Hearing’ birds

Subramanian Sankar, also among those who view birding as more than just a hobby, is keenly interested in soundscapes, which is about “recording the wilderness without human sounds”, as he puts it.

There were occasions over the last few months, when synthetic sounds were less intrusive and birds received greater air time. The fact that ambient sound had gone down did help birders who are as tuned in to birding by the ear as they are by the eye, points out Subramanian.

Places usually imbued with quiet would have become quieter still during the lockdown. That is probably the reason why Susy Varughese, a professor at IIT-M who lives on the campus, and another resident Mahathi Narayanaswamy, also a well-known eBirder, recorded the call of a lesser cuckoo.

Fundamental challenge

Subramanian agrees that for many residents in urban areas, trapped in concrete jungles that are clothed in skimpy greenery, the possibility of sighting or hearing the bare minimum number of birds to make the pursuit engaging, is remote.

So, these residents would have to stir from their moorings to have meaningful birding experiences.

Subramanian believes patch birding is the answer; he suggests local clubs can sustain interest in patch birding. Many birders are now practising it as the pandemic has made travelling to far-flung avian hotspots a forbidding idea.

Beyond the pandemic, an ideal scenario would be one in which birders work patch birding into their regular schedules, while also travelling far, for birding.

Also read: When the mighty birds come calling

Where people live in areas located cheek by jowl with a marsh, a lake or an arboreal patch or surrounded by them, they should attempt the trifecta of birding — patch birding, hotspot birding and backyard birding. Before the pandemic struck, Aravind A.M., a resident of Madipakkam, would visit what is known in local birding circles as the “Ram Nagar Swamps”, during his morning walk. Obviously, the last few months, he had either kept away or had been making occasional visits to this patch, which is found smack in the middle of a concrete jungle, but still has features that support avian life, especially birds of the reeds and water.

“At the height of the lockdown, Bird Count India pushed for birding from terraces. I have been doing that. Even if I am not going to Ram Nagar for the usual walk, I walk on my terrace. Every day, I get to see 12 to 15 species,” elaborates Aravind, making it clear why his daily eBird listing streak continues.

Birding from the terrace has of course taken an expected course — Aravind has not entered any rarities in his field notebook. He however feels enriched by terrace birdwatching.

“You become aware of things you would not sit and take notice otherwise. Half an hour on the terrace is not something you usually do. But many birds usually breed around our houses but we are oblivious to it. For the first time, I saw koels mating right in front of my house. During the breeding season, I was able to see sunbirds and yellow-billed babblers nesting, from my terrace,” says Aravind.

Birders would point out that watching birds in flight and identifying them is an art in itself. There are variations — sometimes subtle — in how the wing looks and in the flight and other factors that can help in identification. With its overall size and beak and accompanying gular pouch, a pelican cannot be missed — in Chennai, residents living near waterbodies and marshes may be accustomed to watching spot-billed pelicans flying past their homes — but a birder would tell you more. That a pelican bends its neck to form an ‘S’ while flying due to the oversized “bag” under its beak. Says Aravind, “You may never or only rarely get to see a rare bird from your terrace. But there is always the possibility of regularly seen birds exhibiting rare behaviour, if you set aside some time for them. To give an example, during the lockdown, I saw two yellow-billed babblers squaring off against each other.”

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Printable version | May 22, 2022 8:22:54 pm |