Birdwatching was once considered a pastime of the elite, but over the past few years people from almost all walks of life have been spending time in green watery zones to catch the chirp of the winged creatures.
Networks of enthusiasts have swelled at a brisk pace in India and one of these groups added another feather to its cap this month – one million bird sightings, a fivefold increase from an annual exercise a year ago.
Not that the number of birds has gone up, but the number of birders certainly has –from about 1,000 on the Bird Count India network in 2014, to 3,000 this year.
The network has a burgeoning database of birds in India, as the government does not conduct a bird census even for the endangered species.
Suhel Quader, a scientist at the Bengaluru-based Nature Conservation Foundation who started the initiative two years ago, said people have disposable incomes and they are willing to spend it on equipment – cameras and binoculars – to observe nature from close quarters.
While the advent of digital photography has made clicking pictures easier and more affordable, the internet has provided a platform to share them with the world.
“Hundreds of people put pictures of birds on their Facebook pages and we have tried to bring them together for having a national database of birds,” Quader said.
Increasing awareness about wildlife among the youth is another reason for such a jump in bird sightings with about a third of the contributors below the age of 40, he added.
“If the birds go missing from an area, it is the first warning for people. Lots of birds in a place indicate that surface water quality is good and air is better,” said Fayaz Khudsar, a wildlife biologist at Delhi’s Yamuna Bio-Diversity Park.
The initiative has helped chronicle birds like Indian Pitta that was viewed in Delhi for the first time in 60 years and migratory birds like Whooper Swan being spotted in Himachal Pradesh’s Pong Dam lake after 13 years. The Indian Pond Heron is now the fifth most commonly spotted bird in India, appearing in 35% of the lists.
This would not have been possible without people like former Customs commissioner Vinod Goyal, who got interested in wildlife photography about a decade ago during his posting in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh city.
“People buy jewellery from their savings. I bought a camera and other equipment to pursue my hobby,” he said.
Then there are enthusiasts like Balram Bhargav, a busy cardiologist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), and Delhi police sub-inspector Rajeev Kumar.
“Wildlife photography is like opium. It takes you in,” said Raghav Bagel, a software professional at Tata Consultancy Services, who carries his camera all the time to catch birds on the move.
In 2014, 800 unique bird species were recorded in India, the highest for any country. This year, Quader’s team estimates that the number of species would almost double, turning global spotlight on India as a hot birdwatching destination.
Total bird sightings: 1.04 million
Tamil Nadu: 11%
Himachal Pradesh: 4%