Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sunday at the Races- February 2018

No, equines galloping on a track don't count as wildlife in my book either. And they certainly don't belong on this blog. The race I am referring to is the Mumbai edition of the India Bird Races 2018, held on 4th February 2018. And unlike the equine variety, the only gambling here is in choosing the spots you choose to bird in and there are no odds offered whatsoever. So if you are of a sporting disposition, I am sorry to have disappointed you with a 'Clickbait' title. Guilty as charged.

The HSBC Bird Races have been held in India for 15 years now, beginning in Mumbai and growing to 16 cities now. A brainchild of noted naturalist and bird maestro Sunjoy Monga and Ravi Vaidyanthan (and aided by dear friend Pravin Subramanian) the 2018 edition attracted more than 300 participants. For those not in the know, a Bird Race involves teams of birding enthusiasts spending a day looking for birds in and around the designated city. All the teams meet up at the end of the day to share experiences and talk about the issues and challenges that they encountered. But first, the birding.

This year our team comprised Vishnu, Sriram and me. Pravin joined us for a bit of the morning session. Our strategy was simple - visit a couple of places we'd never been together before. We picked Karnala Bird Sanctuary, TS Chanakya and IIT Powai as our primary spots. We were tempted was to hit Uran or Akshi beach as well, but we pulled back and decided to enjoy these rather than try and cram more into the day.

Black Kite
We hit Karnala at daybreak, and started on the popular 'Hariyal' trail. And almost immediately we heard the sounds of several species beginning their morning rituals. Flycatchers, Flowerpeckers, Bulbuls, Sunbirds and Warblers all flitted in the trees around us in preparation for their morning feed. We watched them for a bit, got some good sighters and then walked further to try for a couple of Woodpecker species that I was really keen on - Rufous and White-naped. The trail meandered on and other birds appeared in the hazy winter light; Bee-eaters,  Woodshrikes, Doves all presented themselves, but the Woodies were absent. We walked further down where a couple of beautiful Oriole species made their presence felt - first with their melodious calls and then via visual confirmation. Sriram found a Black Kite and Crested Serpent Eagle perched high on a tree to open our raptor count. More waiting and still no Woodpeckers so we reluctantly made our way back to the gate and continue to the next leg of the journey.

We drove back towards Mumbai, with a planned halt at TS Chanakya en route. This wetland is usually home to an amazing number of wader species but that particularly day we got squat. It was probably the tide as there was too much water all across the wetland. We had no option but to call it quits and instead headed to an old stomping ground, Bhandup Pumping Station or BPS. It was almost midday as we arrived there and we didn't expect much. Initially, we got a couple of Stilts and Sandpipers and then Pravin suddenly looked up and said 'Eagles'! And as we stared after him, we saw three large birds riding the thermals up in the sky. We could ID the lower two as Indian Spotted and Greater Spotted Eagles while the one higher up proved difficult to properly ID. And we left BPS to head back home for a quick bite. 

Rufous Woodpecker
Vishnu, Sriram and I met again in the afternoon at the gates of the IIT in Powai. This venerable educational institution also boasts of an astonishing variety of birdlife. Having entered only as a visiting student two decades ago, I was keen to reacquaint myself with this amazing campus, this time as a birdwatcher. We headed right down to the edge of Powai lake and started scanning the vegetation for birds. Straight up, a drilling sound made all of us hasten our steps. Sriram spotted it first; high up on a tree, almost blending with the bark itself was a Rufous Woodpecker! A big sighting for me, having looked for this bird for more than 3 years. A got a couple of half-decent pics and was licking my lips for more when Vishnu called out 'Cuckoo'. And I turned in surprise because this wasn't really the season for cuckoos.

Chestnut-tailed Starling
And as we all tried to ID the Cuckoo, the slighted Woodie took serious offence. He was, after all, the star that afternoon. His ego wouldn't let him play second fiddle to a mere 'Cuckoo' and in true Bollywood hero fashion, he put his nose (beak?) in the air and flew to the far corner to sulk in a tree there. The 'Cuckoo' turned out to be a Black-headed Cuckooshrike female and she didn't seem to be at all affected by the hero's abrupt departure. She flitted around and then graciously made way for a flock of Chestnut-tailed starlings who enjoyed feeding in a nearby tree. A couple of Orioles, Jungle Babblers and Common Mynahs all congregated for their respective afternoon conferences but we wanted the Woodie. And so we set out to find him. He called like a sulking schoolboy from a thickly wooded patch and we braved a swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitos to get close to him. But apart from a couple of sighters against the light, his majesty was in no mood to accommodate us. And so we headed towards the lake shore for the last leg of our day. And there we saw more than 10 different species of birds, from Starlings, Swifts and Bee-eaters to Ducks, Herons and Jacanas. A gorgeous sunset on Powai Lake capped a wonderful day's birding (we recorded 87 species) and it was time for the evening festivities. 

Nearly 300 people gathered in Powai to cap a super bird race. The programme, Hosted by the warm and effusive Mr. Monga, the evening was a lot of fun for young and non-young alike. The best thing though is that it more about the experience than about hyper-competitive team counts. There were fun quizzes and not-so-fun updates on vanishing habitats around the city. Perhaps the most concerning fact was the dwindling number of species in every successive Bird Race. On a brighter note there were teams with more than 160 species sighted but the highlight of the evening was the presence of more than 20 school children who had accompanied their teachers and participated in the Bird Race. It was amazing to see 6th and 7th Graders have the enthusiasm to watch birds for a whole day and still have the energy to partake in the festivities at the end. May their tribe increase!

And that capped our first Bird Race. A huge vote of thanks to Sunjoy Monga, Pravin Subramanian and every one else who puts this together. And to HSBC and the other sponsors who opened their purses and won our hearts with their gesture. Till next year then!

About the Bird Race
The India Bird Races ( began as the Mumbai Bird Race in 2005. Since then it has been held every winter (either January or February) and the total number of participants has shown a steady increase to reach a point where it is first come first served now! Birdwatchers form teams and are allowed to report sightings from areas as far as Virar/Palghar to the north and Phansad to the South East of Mumbai - more than 200 kms apart. It is a fantastic initiative that brings the entire birdwatching community together and while there are always hyper-competitive bad eggs in every city, they were notable by their absence, definitely in this edition of the Race! 

The Races, now held in 16 Indian cities have come a long way from the 2005 edition where around 100 people spotted 277 bird species. That number is remarkable if you consider that India's total species count is around 1300. 20% of India's bird species are visible in and around the country's most 'developed' urban areas. And even as that number has gone down to 236 in 2018, it is still a stunning number and one that all nature lovers in this city should be proud of. It is also a gentle reminder to our planners that nature and its denizens are adaptable and it is we humans who are not.

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