Birds of a unique feather
A recent spate of bird sightings of species that haven't graced the city's skies in a very long time has delighted Mumbai's bird lovers. Does this mean our urban environs are becoming home to new residents? Or are we playing host to guests who are merely passing by?
It’s celebration time for Mumbai’s birdlovers. They have been rewarded with an upsurge of uncommon bird sightings. Early 2012 saw sightings of the Ashy Minivet that was spotted after 47 years in Mumbai and the Blue-throated Flycatcher that was seen in the region for the very first time. Apart from these, more than half a dozen bird species have been spotted in and around Mumbai during the past month and a half. This coincides with the peak migration period for birds.
Naturalist, nature writer and photographer Sunjoy Monga lists the recent sightings. “The European Roller has been uncommonly seen over the past four decades, with barely five confirmed reports. But more than 25 reports and over a hundred birds have been spotted during the past few weeks. The Spotted Flycatcher has been seen in the Mumbai region for the first time. Other birds include the Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, of which there are barely three or four reports from the region in all, the Indian Skimmer, which is a rare visitor to the region, and several species of warblers. There have even been sightings of White Storks and several species of terns in quite a few different areas.”
Monga and his team have been documenting the biodiversity of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region for the past year to create a comprehensive database of most of the key aspects of fauna and flora. They have been responsible for spotting birds like the European Roller, Spotted Flycatcher, The Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, and the White Stork this year.
On the rise
Avid birdwatcher Adesh Shivkar credits the spurt in rare sightings to the growth of technology and availability of additional resources in recent times. “Thanks to the growth of electronic media, birdlovers have gotten a platform to express their interests,” says 36 year-old Shivkar, who gave up his corporate job and started Nature India Tours that organises birdwatching trips across the country, four years ago. “People started networking with fellow birdlovers and more of them went birdwatching together. Good birding books have also started to come out.” The digital camera boom has also brought rare sightings to the fore. Earlier, developing film was expensive, thereby restricting the number of people who photographed birds and could present evidence of rare sighting, he adds.
Monga, however, thinks it’s too early to speculate whether these sightings signify a trend. “In a way, birds are quite prone to springing surprises — they have the power of flight and occasionally stray from traditional migration routes. Sometimes, species stop over momentarily. Recent years have also seen a considerable upsurge in the number of bird enthusiasts in the region and so that increases the scope of covering areas more often and well. More human observers increase the chances of more sightings.”
“Nobody has studied whether these sightings are common enough to signify a trend,” agrees Asif Khan, Associate Program Officer for BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society). “We need to study these recent sightings and see whether there is something unique in the city that has been attracting these birds. It could also just be a result of migration. Migrations are mass events and you will always find stragglers, birds who lose their way or aren’t fast enough to catch up with the rest.”
“Nearly all of these (birds that have been sighted) are migrant species, most of them from the Himalayas and some from Central Asia and even beyond,” Monga elaborates. But he doesn’t rule out the possibility of these birds coming to Mumbai more regularly. “Birds are very opportunistic. Even the famed flamingos of Mumbai suddenly appeared in the early 1990s and have since been coming more or less regularly ever since,” he says.
An uncommon sight
But Monga cautions that a lot still needs to be done to stem the decline that the city’s avia population has undergone in the recent past. Although our country does not have a systematic bird count, he estimates a 30 to 40 decline in bird population. “Native trees like the Peepal and Banyan are being cut down and exotic trees are being planted because they grow faster,” explains Khan. “These trees may grow slowly but they have plenty of long-term benefits. Non-native trees like gulmohars and rain trees don’t support the city’s ecosystem.”
Shivkar believes that the percentage of people interested in birds is very small. “Britain’s RSPB (the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) is very strong. They can lobby for policy changes to improve the plight of birds,” he elaborates. According to its website, the society has over a million members. “In India there is no such strong organisation. Even though the BNHS has been around for 127 years, it only has 5,000 members. So they don’t hold as much sway.”
However, this doesn’t mean that all hope is lost for the city’s feathered inhabitants. “Birds can display utmost resilience, at least several species can, and they can survive — even thrive — under seemingly adverse conditions,” says Monga.
To ensure that these birds don’t disappear from the city altogether, Shivkar suggests three things. “Protect whatever green patches remain in Mumbai. Stop the destruction of indigenous trees. Spread awareness amongst youngsters,” he says.
Monga and his biodiversity team hope that their extensive project will give them an idea of the contemporary status of biodiversity in region. “What ails its biodiversity, what are the kinds of pressures, what are the kind of species that are proliferating from our activities and what may be losing out,” says Monga explaining the kind of information they hope to glean. “In a nutshell it gives us the scope for any corrective action where needed, to safeguard this biodiversity.”
Bye Bye Birdie?
“The numbers of birds are declining in Mumbai but only sparrows end up getting highlighted,” says Shivkar. “The Great Indian Bustard is one of the country’s rarest birds — there are only 200 left in the wild. But nobody speaks of this.” Many other birds used to be found in Mumbai in good numbers but now can mostly be seen only in the city’s perimeters. These include the Golden Oriole, Rosy Starling, Common Iora, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Lesser Whistling Duck, Comb Duck, Dusky Crag Martin, Grey Hornbill, Common Hoopoe, Nightjar, Spotted Owlet, Greater Coucal, Common Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Small Green Bee-eater, larks, drongos, jacanas and flowerpeckers