A bird festival in Dang, Gujarat aims at observing birds and creating awareness about the biodiversity in the lesser-known forest habitat at the northern end of the Western Ghats. The three-day exercise this year recorded 113 species of birds belonging to 45 families.The Dang forest is also home to the endangered forest owlet, a bird endemic to India with a population range between 250 to 999. It was thought to be extinct for over 100 years until its rediscovery in 1997 in Maharashtra.Dang also has rich medicinal plant diversity that is now under threat such as overexploitation. A bright-yellow bird zipped over our heads while we stood at the fringe of a field nestled in a forest. “Aa aamtiki che. (This is an oriole),” said Pratik, pointing to the black-hooded oriole that disappeared into the thick canopy of the Purna Wildlife Sanctuary in south Gujarat’s Dang district. After a few moments of birding action and then the lack of it, when the group was contemplating to move to the next spot, a shaheen falcon swooped into the scene and perched atop a barren tree. The 16-year-old struggled to recollect the Dangi name of the world’s fastest flying bird (only when diving), but eventually remarked, “Sasin!” Pratik and his two friends, who came birdwatching for the first time, added that they don’t see the bird often in their area. The trio, who were from a school near Purna Wildlife Sanctuary (PWS), were part of a mixed flock of 12 birdwatchers, including first-timers, beginners, experts, forest guards and volunteers, on a nature trail during the Dang Bird Festival 2020 organised and funded by the forest department. Eight such teams set out before the crack of dawn on eight earmarked trails in the 160.84 square kilometer sanctuary every day between February 7 and 9. The participants, most of them from Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, had the objective of watching birds and listening to them, identifying the species and noting observations in this lesser-known forest habitat approximately 130 kilometers from Surat. Pratik and his school friend from a school near Purna Wildlife Sanctuary in Dang participated in the Dang Bird Festival 2020. Photo by Kartik Chandrmouli/Mongabay. Pratik’s team, labelled as the Heart-Spotted Woodpecker, saw birds such as the crested serpent eagle, black-rumped flameback (woodpecker), white-cheeked barbet on the Breeding Center trail marked with teak, bamboo and mixed forests. A flock of four male black-hooded orioles on the tree canopy and a racket-tailed drongo livening the forest floor with its metallic calls were more among the group’s 70 observations. The facilitator of the event, Pranav Trivedi, wanted the habit of closely observing birds take root in participants, and not just the process of making species checklists. “I call it an awareness and educational event first, and then a citizen science activity,” said Trivedi, an ecologist and nature educator. “Apart from the knowledge, you need to spread the enthusiasm first and attract the fence-sitters. But most importantly, it is for awareness among the local students.” The Dang Bird Festival was started in 2016 by two researchers, Nikunj Jambu and Kaushal Patel, with the support of the then Deputy Conservator of Forest (DCF) of the North Dang division, Anand Kumar. While the founders wanted to bring attention to the sanctuary and attract participants from different regions, their main intention was to educate the local youth with knowledge about Dang’s biodiversity and the importance to conserve it. “We wanted to wean the youth away from harmful activities such as bird hunting and instill in them a sense of pride and an urge to protect the local bird species of Dang,” said Jambu. At the event this year, two groups were led by the youth from the local tribal community who have been trained over the years in natural history and hospitality through the forest department. “Most of the local youth is familiar with the Dangi bird names and would have seen them at some point,” said Agneeshwar Vyas, DCF, North Dang Division. “But hunting with catapults is an issue in this landscape. So, the experience and knowledge sharing between the kids from this area and outsiders can generate awareness and spark new interests.” During the daily evening gathering sessions at the base, Mahal Eco-Campsite on the banks of river Purna inside PWS, participants ranging from teens to fifty-year-olds shared their day’s experiences while experts spoke about birdwatching, its ethics and the avian biodiversity of Dang. But the birdwatchers’ afterparty was games such as naming Dang specific raptors (birds of prey), frugivorous and insectivorous birds and imitating bird calls. Agneeshwar Vyas, Deputy Conservator of Forest, Dang (North) Division, addressing participants during the Dang Bird Festival organised by the forest department. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay. The three-day exercise recorded 113 species of birds belonging to 45 families. A 2004 study in PWS which Trivedi was also a part of, conducted by the Gujarat Ecological Education and Research (GEER) Foundation and Gujarat Forest Department, recorded 139 species from 41 families. Dang forests form the northern end of the Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot. Among the Western Ghats endemic species, sightings of Malabar trogon, Malabar whistling thrush and white-bellied woodpecker were most noteworthy said the organisers. Other important observations included nine species of flycatchers (resident and migrant) such as ultramarine flycatcher and Tickell’s blue flycatcher and seven species each of woodpeckers and raptors. “We didn’t see the black eagle which is generally sighted here and there was no sign of the long-billed vultures too,” said Trivedi, who has worked in the Dang region since 1987. But he added that further data analysis is needed to show bird species trends. According to Trivedi and Vyas, this fifth edition of the event will help them optimise and standardise the data gathering process. The open-access report, once ready, will be sent to all participants and submitted to the forest department.