What a flutter!

AVIAN ATTRACTION Bird race at Muttukadu Lake

AVIAN ATTRACTION Bird race at Muttukadu Lake   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: M. Karunakaran

The Chennai Bird Race held recently kept bird lovers busy with their binoculars. PRINCE FREDERICK reports

Last Sunday, birdwatchers outnumbered birds. Because hordes of them had taken to birding sites in and around the city for the HSBC Chennai Bird Race (organised by the Madras Naturalists Society). Now, explaining this event to friends was not easy for these birders. Their experience was similar to that of naturalist Sunjoy Monga when he organised a bird race in Mumbai. Laughs Monga, “Believing birds were going to be raced at a venue, members of television channels asked me, ‘How many cameras do we bring to shoot the race?’”

But, ironically at a bird race, it is the birders who race – against time. The teams set out in cars, SUVs, buses, bullock carts or whatever to catch glimpses of birds within a given radius – and also a time frame. In a log sheet that lists the species of birds likely to be found within an area, the participants have to mark the birds they have sighted and where. Scrutinising these log sheets, a team of expert birdwatchers decides the winner. Bird races in India are almost always a dawn-to-dusk event, but in the West they stretch for 24 hours.

As the early hours of day are best for bird watching, participants are up with the lark. One of the teams at the Chennai bird race, Emerald Dove, reached Pulicat Lake at 5.50 a.m. and found a rival group already busy with their binoculars.

Fun events

Generally, bird races are fun events where rules are kept to the bare minimum. At the Chennai race, participants were spared the trouble of providing proof of visits to places they said they had visited. It was not necessary considering one-half of every team was composed of avid birdwatchers for whom sighting beautiful birds is a reward in itself. The other half consisted of people out for the first time to watch winged creatures. Sometimes, non-experts are roped in as photographers or drivers. The team ‘Hornbill’ had the ADGM of the Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI), Jebakumar, who is now hooked on bird-watching at the wheel.

Often, cars alone don’t help. ‘Emerald Dove’ went around the Pulicat Lake in a motorised boat, while ‘Neerkagam’ used a catamaran to get close to a congregation of spot-billed pelicans at Muttukadu. But bird races can be ‘run’ with limited resources, as proved by ‘Sunbirds’, the only team to walk or rely entirely on public transport or autos. . Although restricting themselves to places within the city (IIT, Guindy National Park, the Pallikaranai marsh and Nanmangalam Reserve Forest), they managed to spot 59 species.

Bird races can throw light on less-known avifaunal habitats. Hornbill travelled to Kaluveli (near Marakkanam), which will not figure prominently in any conversation on birding sites. Log books and photographs from teams concentrating on such sites are of interest to naturalist societies.

Bird races can be used to create awareness about the environment. The recent one gave Ramjee (scientist at Centre for Environment Education) an opportunity to explain what is wrong with our marshes. Taking his team mates on a walk, he made them experience the degraded state of one in South Chennai.

Naturalists recommend frequent bird races because they can bring news about birds they have given up on. Near Kelambakkam, the team ‘Marsh Harriers’ spotted an Indian Courser, which MNS members thought had left the city for good. No race ends without a load of surprises. An inveterate birdwatcher, Sudhakar Muthyala says, “In all my years of bird watching, I had not seen a water cock in these parts.”

Until his visit to the Madhavaram jheel last Sunday.


The HSBC Chennai Bird Race brought into focus rare birds. There were other surprises too. One team was headed by school-going Nandan. Another team, led by puppeteer Banumathi, comprised children from the Spastics Society. There was also an all-woman team.

Spotting 120 birds, Emerald Dove (Sudhakar Muthyala, Praveen Govindraj, Sandeep Apparao and V. Sathyanarayan) was placed right on top of the 40-team table. Great Cormorant (97), led by T. Badrinarayanan, and Lesser Kestrel (90) led by Rajaram, finished second and third respectively.

C. K. Sreedhran, Principal Conservator of Forests, M. V. Murugappan, chairman, AMM Foundation and naturalist Sunjoy Monga participated in the prize-giving function. “Young Rangers”, a book brought out by Monga in association with HSBC, was released.

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