Migratory birds fail to weather rain, fall in numbers


PUNE: A wet November, changing crop patterns, pesticides and habitat loss have kept at least 80 per cent of migrating birds away from the wetlands of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan this year.

Usually, December is when birds from colder regions can be spotted at several places across the country. However, this year, almost 80 per cent have not turned up as yet, said ornithologists.

Bird watcher Satish Pande, who recently visited Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh and several spots in Maharashtra, found that only a few migratory bird species had arrived. Traditionally, they fly in by mid-October.

“The arrival of migratory birds this year at inland water bodies has been delayed by 45 days due to rain after the monsoon. Humid and cloudy conditions lead to low visibility, affecting the birds and their migration pattern,” said Pande.

He added that several wetlands in Gujarat and Bharatpur are usually the first stop for most species. “Saurashtra gets the common and demoiselle cranes. Even their numbers have dwindled this year. So if they have not come in large numbers there, not many can be expected in Maharashtra,” he said.

Pande also visited Bharatpur in Rajasthan and Khijadiya in Gujarat for the global bird-watchers’ conference in November. “Khijadiya is an important migratory bird destination and the organisers had projected it as a bird-watching spot. Jamnagar has wetlands and coastal birds, but this year, the numbers had dropped considerably,” said Pande.

Alibag-based ornithologist, Vaibhav Deshmukh, said that migratory birds begin arriving from north India, central, western Europe and Siberia in October. “This year, rainfall even after the monsoon has delayed their arrival. Birds find it difficult to migrate in the rain because it hampers their flight. They may get exhausted and die,” said Deshmukh.

Migratory ducks fly to Bharatpur, an inland sanctuary. But there too hardly any winged visitors showed up this year. “At least 15-16 species of ducks arrive every year, but there were hardly any this year in spite of a lot of water in the area. The only species present were the northern shoveller and the brahminy shelduck, a few wigeons and pintails. There has been a fall in the species’ diversity and abundance,” Pande said.

Waders (long-legged wading birds) and others like the Kentish plovers, little-ringed plovers, redshank and greenshank were only a few this year.

According to Pande, less to moderate rainfall keeps perennial water bodies intact whereas seasonal ones dry up. So, most migratory birds are found at other water bodies.

“Heavy rainfall creates many water bodies, which means that migratory birds scatter over them. Therefore, one may not see many migrants at a single water body, even though they may have arrived in significant numbers. The timing of arrival, the number of species and their population on the west coast have not been significantly affected and the usual assembly of gulls, terns and waders can be seen along the Arabian sea,” said Pande.

Inland migrants and forest birds like the warblers, migratory predators such as greater spotted eagle, lesser spotted eagle, imperial eagle, northern goshawk, sparrow hawk, peregrine falcon, saker falcons and the short-eared owl are also late.

“Birds of prey such as the montagu harrier, pale harrier, hen harrier and the pied harrier that come from Eastern Europe, Central, Northern Asia and Southeast Asia have not arrived,” said Pande.

The bigger deterrent is habitat loss. Water bodies are filled up for construction and agricultural pesticides enter them. Both have affected bird migration.

“A 40 per cent decline in the water bird population has already been reported in Europe and North America. Data from several years shows that there has been a 75 per cent reduction in the number of cranes coming to India, perhaps due to the changing crop pattern. Tracking evidence on the bar-headed geese showed that the geese tagged in Mongolia were sighted at Shirwal near Pune, Nagpur and other places in Maharashtra a few years ago. We remember sighting as many as 4,000-5,000 bar-headed geese in the past. But in the last two years, we see flocks of only 40-50 of these birds at one time. There has been a definite reduction in the number of geese, which are less than 50 per cent now,” said Pande.

Deshmukh, who has been observing the bird migration pattern on the Arabian Sea coast for eight years, said, “Sea birds like waders, gulls and terns have arrived late. There are fewer terns this year.”

Belgaum-based bird photographer and ornithologist, Niranjan Sant, who has co-authored several books on birds, said, “Small birds like flycatchers arrived in early November. Wagtails, which are common winter visitors and usually arrive here during October-end, are flying in now. The biggest change has been observed in the migratory patterns of water birds. Their number is small even now. Usually, ducks come in hundreds by October-end or early November, but this time, there are only a few even in December,” said Sant.
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This post was submitted by Mudit Agrawal.

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