It’s about five on a chilly Sunday morning and an enthusiastic team of birders are up and running. Their goal — to spot the most number of birds they can by the end of the day and to record them all. Their backpacks are packed with the tools of the trade — a pair of binoculars, a digital camera and a smart phone app. And it’s not just one; several teams are doing the same around the country at different places, on the same day. In a birder’s world, this is what the annual Big Bird Day feels like. Across the world, people interested in birds (“birders” or “birdwatchers”) venture into forests, water bodies, croplands and even urban gardens, to watch birds. Many of them carefully document what they see and share it with others. In today’s app world, there are apps for this too!
Birding, as a hobby, has caught up with the young and old alike. Meet Arya Vinod, one of the avid birders from Kerala. “I was a nature-lover since childhood. My interest in birds started after I read about Salim Ali in a Malayalam science magazine. Since then, I started birding from my house and later ventured into the neighbouring paddy fields and woods,” she says about her journey into birding.
There are many like Arya. With such garnered interest, can this novel hobby be turned into a conservation effort? The answer is yes. Birders can now document, count and track their sightings, all with a simple smartphone. “eBird” (http://ebird.org/), started as a project of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society in the US, is making it happen. It provides a web-based platform for birders to upload and track their sightings. A birder simply logs in, enters details on when, where, and how they went birding and then fills out a checklist of all the birds seen and heard during the outing. It’s that simple. For the tech savvy, there is a smartphone app.
eBird has a page dedicated to India (http://ebird.org/india/) launched by Bird Count India (BCI). BCI encourages birders to upload their bird lists to eBird India and also organises periodic birding events and projects.
India & Kerala Bird Atlas Though India has a long history of birdwatching, systematic records about birds are scarce. Data about where birds are found, when migrating birds arrive and leave, how the population changes over time are still not well known. This is exactly where eBird is helping. Dr Raju Kasambe from the Bombay Natural History Society says, “Apart from gathering information in a general sense, eBird provides the opportunity to keep track of common birds as well as track the status of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) with the help of keen birdwatchers.”
With data from eBird, it is possible to sense the trends in bird populations over time. “Take the case of the vulture population decline in India. If there had been a monitoring programme like eBird in place, we would have been able to spot the trends much faster and take preemptive action,” says Suhel Quader from Nature Conservation Foundation and Bird Count India, pointing out the immense value eBird offers.
eBird has started gaining momentum in India in recent years. Earlier, most observations uploaded to eBird from India were by visitors from abroad. But over the last two years, the trend has changed dramatically. Before January 2014, 95 per cent of eBird entries from India were by tourists from elsewhere. In contrast, in October 2015, around 99 per cent of eBird entries from India were by Indians. The largest number of eBird uploads is from Kerala with more than 36,000 checklists – almost twice as many as Karnataka, which comes in second with about 19,300 checklists. In July this year, birders kicked off an ambitious five-year project to map the distribution and abundance of birds in Kerala. Over the next five years, birders will go to over 3,000 locations across Kerala to observe and record birds for the Kerala Bird Atlas, the first such compilation of birds of an entire Indian state.
Praveen J, of the Kerala birder group, and associate editor of Indian Birds journal says, “Information on Indian birds is highly incomplete, and sightings uploaded to eBird India are helping fill in the gaps. The ongoing Kerala Bird Atlas is an example of where we are using eBird as a tool to collect and collate detailed information on bird distribution and abundance.” eBird has already recorded more than two million observations from India and you could add more.
You can write to them on firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, install the BirdLog app available on the AppStore and PlayStore.
(The author is with Gubbi Labs, a research collective based in Bengaluru)