From a city-specific bird race to the Asian Waterbird Census: As annual bird migrations pick up pace, it is time for Chennai and Tamil Nadu’s various attempts at documenting these winged travels to begin
The beginning of the year for us, is the middle of migration season for a number of our winged guests, and a time of important activity for Chennai’s birding community. This is when Chennai’s birders — like others around the country — take stock of both the domestic and migrant bird populations around the city.
In a regular year, the month of January would have seen three annual events — Chennai Bird Race, the Asian Waterbird Census, and the Tamil Nadu Government’s own Synchronised Bird Census — compelling birdwatchers to criss-cross the city’s wetlands, wooded areas and other hotspots in a patient, long-drawn attempt at documenting our avian population. Last year, the much-awaited marquee Chennai Bird Race had to be put on hold, while the other two events saw muted, focussed participation by a few long-term birders.
This year, however, the Madras Naturalists Society (MNS) dares to hope for a little bit more despite a looming wave.
Says G Vijay Kumar, honorary secretary, MNS, the organisation behind Madras Bird Race, “We are hopeful of holding the HSBC Chennai Bird Race this year. Though the event is usually held in January for better sightings, there is no rule as such. It is in the migration period between December and February that you have some choice when you go out in the field. You don’t have to restrict yourself to woodland birds.”
There are numbers to back Kumar’s statement. For instance, when the last public Chennai Bird Race was held in 2020, some 30-odd teams of participants had in total spotted 171 bird species in the city. At least four teams had spotted upwards of 100 species each, states Kumar, adding, “The ‘bird of the day was the grey wagtail sighted at Semmenchery. Other notable sightings were white wagtail, Asian pied starling and Pallas’s grasshopper warbler at Pallikaranai Marsh, and the southern grey shrike at Perumbakkam Tank.”
And these are just some of the wetland birds; Chennai also has a sizeable number of woodland birds who populated its urban treetops through the year.
While Chennai Bird Race — one of many separate bird races sponsored by HSBC around the country — is entirely organised by Chennai’s fraternity, the society is also a part of larger, concentrated effort to track the avian populations of bigger regions. The Asian Waterbird Census (AWC), for instance, was first held in 1987, and today covers about 26 countries along both the East-Asian Australasian Flyway, as well as a large part of the Central Asian Flyway. It is a massive citizen science effort, and depends on both amateurs and experts who put in tremendous legwork out of their own volition. In our part of the map in 2021, the State co-ordinator for AWC was KV Sudhakar, a key member of MNS.
At the forefront
Says Sudhakar, “The AWC is part of a concentrated effort by the Asian Wetland Bureau, and has been going on since the 1980s in Tamil Nadu. MNS member Dr V Shantaram had pioneered waterfowl censuses in Tamil Nadu, along with C Teronno from Puducherry. Tamil Nadu has always been at the forefront of such initiatives, since the State has one of the highest coverage of wetlands in the country, after Maharashtra and Gujarat.”
Like last year, this year’s efforts on ground are also spearheaded by multiple researchers stationed in Salem, Tiruchi and other parts of the State, says Sudhakar. While foot soldiers across Tamil Nadu submitted a total of 150 species for review in 2021, the final figures “are still being compiled by AWC,” he states.
He adds, “Earlier, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) used to be the national coordinator but now, birders can just record their observations on eBird, which makes it easier. We had requested participants of the Pongal Bird Count to also contribute; these initiatives require coordination.”
As Sudhakar points this out, he speedily lists out the native waterfowl of his homeland: “Pelicans, painted storks, herons, egrets. The migrants include ducks, sandpipers, and plovers. We never used to see flamingos in Chennai; they were usually spotted only in Pulicat. Only in the last few years are they beginning to be sighted here: changes like these are important to note.”
Is the effort worth it? The birders are convinced in the affirmative: their observations not only help track populations and shifting migration patterns of species across the region, but are also an excuse to feel connected to the natural world again.