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Gujarat: European rollers most abundant passage migrant birds in Kutch, common cuckoos least

The survey was organised by the Bird Conservation Society of India (BCSG) and Bird Count India with the support of the Gujarat forest department and was powered by the eBird platform.

Common cuckoo. (Photo by Chandrika Khemani)

EUROPEAN ROLLERS’ population is the highest while the numbers of blue-cheeked bee-eaters and spotted flycatchers are also good, but sightings of common cuckoos and red-backed shrikes are comparatively low—these are some of the primary findings of the Passage Migrant Count (PMC) 2022, the maiden attempt anywhere in India to count the passage migrant birds, which concluded at Kutch in Gujarat on September 11.

As per the primary trip report generated by the eBird platform based on the 394 checklists of birds compiled by 104 birdwatchers over September 10 and September 11, birds of all the eight species of passage migrants which were under the focus of the exercise were observed. The European roller, red-backed shrike, red-tailed shrike, spotted flycatcher, rufous-tailed scrub-robin, greater whitethroat, common cuckoo and the blue-cheeked bee-eater were the focus of the two-day count. As per the report, as many as 529 European rollers were sighted in 166 out of 260 observation points spread across length and breadth of Kutch. That was the highest number for a species among the eight species of birds, which make a stopover in Kutch during their migration from west-central Asia to Africa every year along the Central Asian flyway and Asia-Africa flyway.

The count also reported 409 blue-cheeked bee-eaters, the second highest, at 21 observation points and 148 spotted flycatchers, the third highest, at 84 observation points. However, the numbers of birds of other species spotted were below 100. Birdwatchers observed 61 rufous-tailed scrub robins at 31 locations, 35 greater whitethroats in 21 locations, 28 red-tailed shrikes in 22 places, 27 red-backed shrikes in 23 locations and 26 common cuckoos at 24 locations . Thus, the European rollers were the most abundant and the common cuckoos were the least abundant. However, only 13 Indian rollers, a local migratory bird species that visits Gujarat during the monsoon,  were sighted during the survey.

I am a bit surprised by the numbers of common cuckoos. I would have expected them to be more in numbers. But in the south, we have been observing a peak every alternate year in migration of common cuckoos. So, it’s possible that this year, fewer individuals are moving through Kutch and more through peninsular India. This could be one reason for their lower numbers in Kutch this time round,” Ashwin Viswanathan of Bird Count India (BCI) and one of the coordinators of the survey, told The Indian Express.

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PMC 2022 was organised by the Bird Conservation Society of India (BCSG) and the BCI with the support of the Gujarat forest department and was powered by the eBird platform. While Indian rollers are distributed all over India, passage-migrant European rollers remain concentrated in a smaller area like Kutch during this time of the year and that can explain the difference in their numbers,  according to Ashwin.

A European roller sighted in Kutch during the PMC 22. (Photo by Kalyani Kapdi)

Overall, the survey reported sightings of 219 species of birds. “It really shows that the district is rich everywhere. It’s not just in the areas within Kutch conventionally thought good by birders,” Ashwin said, adding the locations of checklists were spread across the district. “It is possible to undertake such counts in coming years given the fact that there is interest among birdwatchers in Gujarat and across the country to do such scientific, systematic surveys,” he added.

Shantilal Varu, a veteran birdwatcher from Kutch, said the PMC 2022 had thrown up interesting results. “We always thought that these migrant birds make stopovers in Kutch and that we can observe them in isolated time periods and places. But the simultaneous survey across the district has given some clear ideas. We always thought that a good number of European rollers halted in Kutch. The PMC has given us a number for them and for other species also,” said 74-year-old Varu.

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Spotted flycatcher. (Photo by Apoorv Jani)

Dhaval Vargiya, a birdwatcher from Porbandar and president of the Mokar Sagar Wetland Conservation Committee, said he and fellow birders in his team saw more birds on September 12 after the rain on the evening of September 11. “We even spotted a few rufous-tailed scrub robins near Dhinodhar hill. But our primary observation was that birds’ species abundance and population abundance was higher in areas having native tree species like gorad (acacia senegalia) and deshi baval (acacia nilotica) compared with areas where invasive gando baval (prosopis juliflora) is dominant,” said Vargiya.

Uday Vora, a retired IFS officer who is serving as the joint general secretary of the BCSG, said that rainfall on September 10 was a factor. “It is possible the birds could have preferred to remain under some kind of shade and the survey teams might not have been able to observe the optimum number of birds,” said Vora.

BCSG president Dr Bakul Trivedi said similar surveys were required in coming years to draw any conclusions about the abundance of species and populations. “Such exercises are always good. They add to your knowledge. But you can’t come to any conclusion with such isolated studies. It will require follow up studies as we don’t have any reference points now to compare results of the results of this maiden count. However, Kutch has always been an important place for avian diversity and the number of people who joined the survey shows there is lots of interest in it.”

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Of the 104 birdwatchers, 32 were from Maharashtra and Karnataka while the rest were from Gujarat. The 104 were divided into 26 teams which attempted to cover 10 survey points each.

Flycatcher. (Photo by Apoorv Jani)

But Kunan Naik, eBird’s reviewer for Gujarat and one of the coordinators of PMC 2022, said the maiden exercise would prove helpful in future. “This is the first stepping stone. Today, we saw what the migration pattern is like this year. But to understand the actual migration pattern, similar surveys will have to be conducted every year for a long period of time and we will try to do that.”

Naik also said common cuckoos’ arrival in Kutch peaks between end-September and mid-October. This could be one reason for their low count during the PMC 2022, he added.

First published on: 12-09-2022 at 15:49 IST
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