Water-Rail-MumbaiA water rail in a polluted lake located in a densely populated region in Mumbai. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli.

Pretty flamingos fly in with a message about ailing environment

Flamingos, that are now icons of the city’s wetlands, are one of the species that seem to be more pollution-tolerant than many other birds in Mumbai. While there is a rising number of flamingos coming to Mumbai, it isn’t necessarily indicative that all is well with the environment in general.

These pink-tinted birds feed on blue-green algae that are increasingly found where organic sewage flows into the wetlands. So, in an unnatural way, the polluting conditions ideal for algal growth seem to be feeding the pretty flocks of migratory birds that descend in Mumbai every November, deduce experts.

This year, the count of flamingos that arrived in Mumbai is estimated to be over 100,000. In addition to the organic pollution, this increase in number is possibly also indicative of the drought situation in Gujarat and Rajasthan which had areas regularly visited by flamingos in their migratory journey. Some of the big wetlands in the states are totally dry and Mumbai is the closest large wetland area they can access, explained Monga. “It may be a temporary phenomenon, may not be, nobody knows.”

Knowing this, it is a bittersweet experience observing the huge flocks of flamingos making a gorgeous landing in the algae-abundant Seawoods wetlands in Navi Mumbai, where we made a pre-high tide stop on our bird race route. A regular habitat for flamingos, right behind the posh and populated NRI Colony, the site was once proposed as a golf course. Last year, a high court judgement quashed the proposal, much to the joy of local activists who had been campaigning to save the flamingo habitat. The Seawood wetlands are currently on a proposed list of sites that Bird Race India is petitioning for getting “protected” status.

Flamingos in Bhandup, Mumbai. The city and its varied habitats house a diverse population of resident and migratory birds. Photo by Tushar Nidambur.


Saving city habitats to save the birds

Numerous freshwater bodies in Mumbai are either on the verge of total disappearance or have been turned into virtual garbage-pools, found data from observations made in the Bird Race. Additionally, there has been a significant decline in grass and scrub lands. “It has led to decline of some bird species, like larks, but it has led to unexpected birds to come to the city because of the filthy water and garbage. Populations of flamingoes, storks and egrets have increased. The numbers of several waders, which pick up insects from garbage, have increased. And of course the increasing number of crows and pigeons are a direct reflection of our human actions,” said Monga.

Meanwhile, in the coastal wetland habitats, there are species such as several waders, oystercatchers and others who could not cope with polluted areas. Additionally, the data collected found almost no sightings of birds such as jungle fowl, pipits, wagtails, quails and a drop in sightings of birds of prey. Vultures, of course, continued to be missing throughout the region.

Mumbai however, still has some protected areas, which could hold a promising future for the city’s biodiversity. With six protected areas in and around the Mumbai region, the city’s birders have petitioned for some more sites – aside from forests which land up getting the most attention – to be tagged as protected. “We have recommended sites like the Panje wetlands, Kharghar hills, some small ponds, Seawoods wetlands behind NRI complex. Also, all creeks should be brought under protected area tag. These are good habitats for birds and general ecology. Birds are a stepping stone to further ecology and our sense of natural history,” said Monga.

Several birding enthusiasts have signed a petition to protect the recommended habitats. Ironically, a fortnight before Mumbai Bird Race, a coastal clearance was given to the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project which will gulp up 100 hectares in and around the Thane Creek Sanctuary, the only creek in Mumbai to have a protected area.

Panje wetlands in Navi Mumbai is a thriving ecosystem for birds. Many natural habitats in the Mumbai region are under pressures of development. Photo by Aishwarya Sridhar.

Read our story on the bullet train project getting the go-ahead through protected areas in Maharashtra.

However, there is an indication that these birding events are developing into platforms for the community to come together and influence policy impacting urban habitats and their bird diversity.

Scientist and educator Suhel Quader notes the importance of data collection apps like eBird in which birders develop detailed lists of their observations, for assisting evidence-based activism. Ebird was used extensively for the Great Backyard Bird Count and for the first time, was the primary source for tracking entries this year at Bird Race India.

“Data collected in eBird can have possible policy implications,” said Quader, who is part of Bird Count India which supports listing and monitoring of birds across India. He elaborated that such data entered by birders can be used to inform what schedules different species should be under, for example, and alert when common species are declining, like the case of the vulture population in India which took a massive drop towards near extinction.

The data is also useful as supporting evidence to save city habitats. Quader notes the case of the Basai wetlands near Gurugram, recognised as one of India’s Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas, where a proposed waste processing plant had got environment clearance. Activists filed a case in the National Green Tribunal to protect the birding habitat and “one of the evidence pieces was data from eBird,” Quader told Mongabay-India. “This kind of data collected on eBird will continue to be more important and useful in the future as evidence.”

A shikra perched on a bare tree. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli.

Citizen science takes wing

In 2018, the sixth year of the Great Backyard Bird Count in India, almost 1,500 birders recorded 825 species during the four-day event across India. Birders covered 271 districts in all kinds of ecosystems (forests, wetlands, grasslands, etc), from national parks and sanctuaries to agricultural regions and urban habitats as well. At the end of three of the four days of GBBC 2019, 718 species have already been recorded, making India among the top countries by number of checklists.

All this crowdsourced data being generated from events like GBBC and Bird Race India is being used to inform conservation.

Ebird is designed for scientific use and taps the potential of amateur birders to inform conservation, explained Quader. “It is fairly elaborate and quality data. There is an automated and manual review and unusual observations are sent to regional experts for review,” he said, highlighting the mechanisms to ensure quality and accuracy of the data that is generated on eBird.

Anisha Jayadevan, one of the coordinators for GBBC this year, explained that events like GBBC focus on the common birds, “birds you see every day in your immediate environment.” Jayadevan herself was introduced to birding when she was 12, by her mother.

“The goal is to get people excited about birding itself,” she told Mongabay-India and the data collected through these events is “for the greater good”.

Currently, over 1,300 Indian species have been recorded on eBird through 10 million observations made by nearly 12,000 eBirders in India.  The collated data is used to inform distribution, seasonal movements, abundance and other patterns of birds.

Monga, while acknowledging the importance of data collected by apps, vouches for manual monitoring using physical log books. “I am an old-fashioned person, I like the log books,” he reminisced.

Irrespective of the technique, the experts acquiesce that the impact of bird watching events is to coming together for a greater purpose of conserving the birds, their habitats and perhaps influencing policy decisions towards the same. “The whole purpose of birdwatching events is to be together. The community needs to come together as one voice. If you are stray voices you dilute the cause,” said Monga.

As the sun descends and silhouettes of bird groups are seen across the sky, it becomes clear, the message that birds are trying to give us – there’s power in unity, flock together.

Asian paradise flycatcher. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli.


Banner image: A white wagtail in a lake in Aarey Colony, Mumbai. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli.

Article published by Aditi Tandon
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