Two-day bird count begins: 104 birdwatchers start looking for passage migrant birds in Kutch

AFTER PARKING their car on the roadside, four birdwatchers start climbing down a grass-covered hillock dotted with thorny vegetation at Rampar village in Kutch. “Durrr…” call from a nearby thicket of gorad (acacia senegalia) and deshi baval (acacia nilotica) alerts Esah Munshi’s ears.

“That’s barred buttonquail’s call,” Munshi, the experienced birder leading the team of four declares. Deepali Watve, a birder from Pune ticks the box against the barred-buttonquail in eBird application on her mobile phone to create a bird checklist.

“Laughing dove calling, the call from the distance is that of greater coucal. You kindly add four red-vented bulbuls and two red-collared doves to the list,” Munshi goes on.

As they keep climbing down the hillock near Fort Mahadev, they hit a hedge round an agricultural field lined by a mud track and having an overhead powerline running parallelly. Ayan (12) and Abeer (9), sons of Watve, spot white-throated kingfisher and pied cuckoos and start clicking its photos. “Bay-backed shrike, red-backed shrike,” Munshi murmurs as she turns her pair of binoculars to the powerline, before exclaiming, “Wait, interesting bird! That’s red-backed shrike!”

Munshi, who has been birdwatching for the past one decade, refers opens Merlin Identification Tool on her mobile phone to verify the identify the “interesting” bird and smiles happily when features in the tool matches with those of the bird perched on the transmission line.

The mother and the two kids also pan their binoculars in that direction and are visibly excited. The team is visibly excited as they spot red-backed shrike, one of the eight species of passage migrant birds that 104 birdwatchers from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnatka were trying to locate and counting their numbers across length and breadth of Kutch as part of Passage Migrant Count 2022, Kutch on Saturday.

The two-day maiden exercise aims to estimate the population of red-backed shrike, blue-cheeked bee-eater, red-tailed shrike, great whitethroat, rufus-tailed scrub robin, European roller, common cuckoo and spotted flycatcher—the birds which migrate from west and central Asia to Africa and make a stopover in Kutch before flying to eastern Africa across the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The count has been organised jointly by the Bird Conservation Society of India (BCSG), Bird Count India with support of the forest department of Gujarat.

Munshi and the Watves then move to anther patch of thorny forest near Piyoni Mahadev temple in Kandhya village in the adjoining Abdasa taluka of Kutch. They spot rufus tailed scrub robins and spotted bee-eaters. But the colourful European roller alludes them for the better part of the morning.

“My sense is that rollers have not reached to this part in western Kutch as yet,” 35-yer-old Munshi tells her 40-year-old teammate from Pune.

Just when the team was thinking to end the morning birding session, when a bird perching on a power line on the edge of the forest patch catches their attention. Munshi first says its Indian roller and doesn’t seem to be too excited. But she gives it another look after driving her car in the direction where the sunlight is favourable. “Oh lovely! This looks European roller to me. Look at the paler colours,” she says. “Indeed, it is European,” Watve agrees. Abeer opens the roof of the car to have a better look at the bird. “For me, European roller is more beautiful than the Indian roller,” Munshi concludes and Watve says it’s the same for her.

In the evening, Ashwin Viswanathan of Bird Count India and one of the coordinators of the Passage Migrant Count leads Omkar Damle, Tejas Mahendle and Paarth Wagh—all post-graduate students of Mumbai University studying biodiversity on a bird count trip in Guneri village of Lakhpat taluka, on the edge of Sir Creek area. They encounter an Indian rock eagle owl and Ashwin helps the young men participating in their maiden bird count as to how to identify this species.

“Now it’s time to look for some shrikes,” Ashwin, among the prominent birdwatchers of India, encourages his young teammates.

While following a mud track in the thorny forest, they encounter a couple of chestnut-bellied sandgrouse and Savanna nightjar before making it to the top of the hillock on the edge of a water body. While observing a couple of green bee-aters, a small bird little further away catches Ashwin’s attention. “Okay, red-backed shrike. It’s a juvenile, This is the first for us today,” Ashwin tells his teammate in hushed voice while adjusting his pair of binoculars.

Ashwin’s team had recorded European rollers and spotted flycatcher in the morning. “People from across India come to Kutch to watch these passage migrant birds. This count will help us understand in what part of Kutch is their abundance like and how their birds view protected (forest) areas and non-protected areas,” Ashwin tells The Sunday Express while underlining many important biodiversity patches in Kutch are not protected forest area.

Yuvrajsinh Zala, deputy conservator of forests (DCF) of Kutch (west) territorial forest division agrees with Ashwin. “This bird count will help us know where these birds are and will guide us in making decisions like what to plant and what not to plant,” Zala said while speaking at the inaugural ceremony of the event which was presided over by HS Mulia, principal district judge of Bhuj.

“This is a historic moment. Kutch has had a rich history of birding. This is the only region whose birds were studied and three books were written about birds of this region over two centuries,” Dr Bakul Trivedi, BCSG president said while referring to books entitled Birds of Kutch published by Hugh Palin in 1887, by AO Hume in 1904 and by Salim Ali in 1940s.

Ali had rightly remarked that Kutch is lucky to have rulers who loved birds,” Dr Trivedi said while remembering contribution of Himmatsinh Bava, youngest brother Maharao Madansinhji, the last ruler of the princely state of Kutch, in bird conservation.

According to provisional reports, on the first day, 11 common cuckoos, 27 blue-cheeked beeaters, 182 European or Eurasian rollers, 13 red-backed shrike, 9 red-tailed shrike, 16 great whitethroats, 25 rufoustailed scrub robins and 64 spotted flycatchers were recorded by birders on the first day of the bird count. In all, birds of 195 species were observed, the organisers said.

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