“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” — Charles Dickens
Dickensian ambivalence best describes the current mood of birders in Chennai. The wetlands are sufficiently-filled, if not filled to the brim. The migratory-bird arrivals have however not matched the expectations raised by the productive monsoon.
It is as though the operatic stage is set, and the expectant spectators have eased into their seats, but the prima donna is hesitant to take centre-stage, thereby delaying the performance indefinitely.
Vikas Madhav, a member of Madras Naturalists Society (MNS) who is the currently engaged in the Asian Waterbird Census 2020 (AWC), which concludes on January 31, expresses the birder-conservationist community’s disappointment succintly.
“When one month arrives, I wait for the next, hoping that the expected numbers would be found then. This has been going on from October. Now, we are in the end of January, and I am looking forward to February,” Vikas hits a plaintive note.
Coordinating the efforts for the waterbird count at Siruthavur, Thaiyur, Manampathy, Amoor and Kelambakkam, as part of AWC 2020, Vikas points out that “84 bird species (water and terrestrial birds) were spotted during the count at and around Siruthavur lake this month. This contrasts significantly with last year’s number of 111 species (water and terrestrial birds) there.”
D. Srinivas, an MNS member who coordinates AWC-2020 counting efforts at Adyar Estuary, Pallikaranai Marsh and Perumbakkam Wetland, has this to say: “Before my group could carry out the counting, I did an initial, individual study, visiting these places, and in the first two weeks of January, the bird count was strikingly low. So, it was decided that we would do the count on January 18 and 19, and we noticed that the migratory birds became more noticeable, which includes clusters of migratory ducks in the Perumbakkam wetland, However, in the three places – Perumbakkam wetland, Pallikaranai Marsh and Adyar Estuary – the numbers are nowhere near what we found in the corresponding period last year,” says Srinivas.
Abhishek Mimani, the MNS memer who coordinates the count at Tenneri, Chembarambakkam, Somangalam and Manimangalam, brings a similar report.
“At Amarambedu, we noticed that the numbers of migratory ducks had dipped considerably this year. Flocks of graganey constituted a decent number. But, there was only a handful of northern shovelers. When we made out visit, we could not see a sing northern pintail,” explains Abhishek.
By this “truant behaviour”, the birds are only instinctively responding to the situations presented to them by impersonal forces. The primary question is: Are the situations benign or are they malignant? There is a trail of other questions following this one.
Have the migratory waterbird population got scattered due to favourable conditions elsewhere that have resulted from a good monsoon? Now, there are more choices at their disposal.
If so, is this pattern noticeable in the those other sections of the Central Asian Flyway where these birds winter?
There is also some clear foreboding in the air, prompting a disturbing question: Is what we are seeing symptomatic of a larger problem, a climatic disturbance?
It is these questions that make AWC 2020 very significant. When collated, the findings of the study from various parts of Asia can be expected to help us understand the prevailing situation better.
Vikas is keeping his fingers crossed, and hoping that the “greater-choice hypothesis” is behind the reduced numbers in known wintering habitats.
“When birds find equally favourable conditions ahead of their regular winter haunts, they have a reason to avoid some extra flying,” says Vikas.
“Due to a copious monsoon, there are more wetlands that these migratory birds can use, and so they would have got distributed,” says Abhishek.
Vikas also hints at the possibility that in some cases, the temporary topographical changes brought in by the heavy rains could be creating something of an optical illusion.
Vikas cites an example: “With considerable water, the Siruthavur lake is really huge now. During the count, we found around 350 garganey, but they were all found at the centre of the lake. Given the size of the lake now, these birds’ presence is close to inconspicuous.”
Given how there would be proliferation of waterbirds during the winter in the Kelambakkam backwaters, what is seen there, at this point of time, can be only described as bleak, says Vikas.
However, encouraging sights heave into view now and then.
“In the Kelambakkam backwaters, we spotted over-a-hundred Pacific golden plovers,” says Vikas on a chirpy note.
Similarly, Srinivas has some positive stories to share from the count that his group carried out — “We observed 130 Eurasian wigeons on January 18 at the IT SEZ Sholinganallur which is cheek-by-jowl with the Pallikaranai Marsh; 200 black-tailed godwits at Adyar Estuary; and 80 grey-headed lapwings at Pallikaranai Marsh.
While being thankful for these small mercies, let us also wait for the complete data and findings from AWC 2020, to hope to see the puzzle solved.
“When birds find equally favourable conditions ahead of their regular winter haunts, they have a reason to avoid some extra flying.”