Salem submitted the largest number of checklists to the global Great Backyard Bird Count

The global Great Backyard Bird Count has a winner among districts and counties. And it is Tamil Nadu’s Salem

April 12, 2019 01:45 pm | Updated 01:45 pm IST

Indian paradise flycatcher, spotted at IIT Madras.

Indian paradise flycatcher, spotted at IIT Madras.

On a sunny afternoon in Yercaud, a hill station in Tamil Nadu’s Salem district, birdwatcher Ganeshwar S.V. caught sight of a pair of beady-eyed olive-brown little birds, small enough to fit into his palm, expertly ferreting out grubs from the undergrowth.

Ganeshwar could not believe his eyes: this nondescript pair of birds was his first-ever sighting of taiga flycatchers. The bird, a native of the taigas or snow forests of northern Eurasia, migrates every year to India but is a rarity in Salem district. The college student added the bird to his checklist, a list of birds seen at a specific time and place. This was one among 245 checklists he uploaded over the four days of the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), a global event held last month to document birdlife across the world with the help of citizen scientists. Tens of thousands of people from over 100 countries participated.

Successful effort

This year, it was Salem that submitted the largest number of checklists, at 8,420, among all participating districts (or counties) in the world. Some of the interesting finds were the migratory eastern Orphean warbler, green-winged teal (a small duck), and the nocturnal Jerdon’s nightjar. India, in fact, saw a staggering response to the GBBC this year: 1,786 birdwatchers spent a whopping 10,764 person-hours documenting birds not just in their backyards, but in wild spaces too. Participants from 31 States and Union Territories spotted 852 species, making India the country to record the third highest number of species worldwide. India contributed 22,273 lists, the second highest after the U.S.

This year also saw the largest number of Indian districts taking part, at 291. More than 80% of districts in Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Goa contributed to the GBBC.

This year’s jump was mostly due to Salem birders “self-organising”, says Suhel Quader of Bird Count India (BCI) that conducts the GBBC in India. Ganeshwar, GBBC coordinator for Salem this year, says the credit should go not just to its dedicated birdwatchers, but to school students too.

“We have been conducting awareness camps and birdwatching trips for around 4,000 school and college teachers so they can encourage their students to participate,” he says. These efforts have paid off. At the Krishnampudur Panchayat Union Middle School, for instance, the headmaster Senthil Kumar now takes classes on birdwatching, just like he would on any subject, says Ganeshwar. “The students know how to document birds, make checklists, and upload them on eBird [a citizen science-based website and app to document bird sightings],” he says.

But there has been a huge growth in interest in birds and the GBBC around the country too. This year’s GBBC captured 15 bird species that were not recorded from previous years. This includes the long-billed wren babbler, the Eastern spot-billed duck and the Kashmir nutcracker. The top five most commonly reported species in India are the house crow, common myna, rose-ringed parakeet, large-billed crow and red-vented bulbul. Over time, these snapshots of birdlife — both their presence and abundance — could reveal patterns of bird diversity and numbers once there is enough data.

Target practice

And for this, getting more participants on board is key. Birders conducted more

than 120 bird walks and talks across public spaces and campuses during the GBBC to introduce birdwatching to the public. The Campus Bird Count, held simultaneously to document birdlife in educational and institutional campuses across India, also surpassed past participation, species records and list records: 173 campuses in India together recorded 535 species and uploaded 6,195 checklists.

The IIT Madras campus recorded 118 species, including the blue-faced malkoha, the Indian paradise flycatcher, and the Tickell’s blue flycatcher.

Meanwhile, Salem’s birders are gearing up for India’s Endemic Bird Day on May 4. “There are some species such as the white-naped tit (a rare bird that occurs only in India) that are seen in Tamil Nadu only in Salem,” says Ganeshwar. “We hope to target these endemics on that day.”

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