In a mammoth task spanning five years across tough terrains in Kerala, a team of over 1,000 birdwatchers has completed the field surveys for the 'Kerala Bird Atlas'.
In what is believed to be Asia's largest citizen science bird project, the Bird Atlas will give an insight into the distribution of birds in the state and significantly chronicle the impact of habitat destruction and climate change on them.
To document the bird diversity in the state, the volunteers climbed steep cliffs in risky, rainy weather, treaded swollen rivers, and often confronted various animals from leeches to herds of elephants, The Indian Express reported.
While several attempts have been previously made by the bird watchers - once in the 1990s and later in 2005 - it did not succeed. However, five years ago, the volunteers, belonging to natural history societies and ornithology clubs, set off again. In 600 days, the team studied 10 per cent of the state, covering an area of 38,863 square kilometres across 4,000 locations of the state.
Each team was assigned a specific location and had a minimum of two and not more than five members. They were headed by a senior birdwatcher and in protected areas and reserve forests, they were accompanied by forest watchers who had better knowledge of the land. All the teams would then document the birds they see and hear with the help of audio and video evidence.
"Bird atlases of similar kinds have been done in western countries. However, to execute such a project in a mountainous, tropical state with some of the most impenetrable forests in the world is a commendable job," Dr PO Nameer, special officer at the Academy of Climate Change Education and Research at Kerala University and a state-level coordinator of the atlas project, was quoted as saying by the media.
Dr Nameer got interested in birds around 30 years ago after he read the Malayalam book 'Keralathile Pakshikal' (Birds of Kerala) by Prof KK Neelakandan, who wrote under the pen-name of Induchoodan. Since then, he befriended birdwatchers across the state and the birdwatching fraternity grew in strength and size through the years.
"We have annual gatherings in many places and when we met in 2014, the idea of committing to a bird atlas was put forward. Our confidence in attempting the project was due to two reasons: the active birdwatching community in the state and the development of the app Ebird," Nameer recalled.
The Ebird app helped simplify the process of recording bird sightings into the database. In addition, it also helped to detect errors while manually inputting the data.
"For example, if I happen to record an unusual species in a certain area and if that bird is not commonly seen in that area, then the district-level reviewers will receive a notification of the entry on Ebird. They will then cross-check the entry made by the volunteer and send him/her a query asking for more details. The checking is done not only for the characteristics of the species, but also for the number of individuals of the species recorded through the app," he explained.
From encountering animals to objections from people and traversing difficult terrains, the volunteers faced many challenges.
Once, during a trip to Illithodu, a team encountered herds of elephants and bisons moving together through the forest.
"We had to climb down the hill, cross a few streams and take a much longer route to the location that we had to go to. It was challenging, but it was also thrilling," said Vishnupriyan Kartha, who led several field trips in parts of Ernakulam and Idukki districts in central Kerala.
Meanwhile, Hari, an avid birder who led survey teams in Pathanamthitta district said that for him, the challenge came from people.
"Once, I was surveying a residential area and I was stopped by the locals who looked as if they were in a mood to beat me up. Apparently, a girl in that neighbourhood had eloped with a guy and these people thought I was in cahoots with that guy, scoping out the area to see if it was safe for them. Fortunately, I had a newspaper clipping of the bird atlas and a few youngsters there understood what I was trying to do," he recalled.
However, despite the challenges and hurdles along the way, the volunteers were excited to spot various species of birds.
"Thanks to the survey I could visit a village called Sreekrishnapuram, northwest of Palakkad, which I had always wanted to. I live in Bengaluru so I would go there on the weekends. It was a surprise to see eight different species of woodpeckers in the village, and this is not even close to the Western Ghats," Praveen J, a state coordinator of the project, was quoted as saying by The News Minute.
Meanwhile, recalling the experience of spotting a Sri Lankan frogmouth, endemic to the Western Ghats in India and Sri Lanka, Kartha said, "We were visiting a region near the power-house of the Idamalayar dam. This place was ravaged by the 2018 floods and there were huge boulders everywhere. It's a very challenging terrain and as we were walking back, we came across a tiny thicket where we saw a pair of the Sri Lankan frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger). We had never expected to see that bird there because they are normally found in the Thattekkad region. It was a real surprise."
Similarly, much to the excitement of Kartha's team, they spotted two pairs of spangled drongo (Dicrurus bracteatus), during a survey in a forest fringe area near Athirappilly in Thrissur district.
As the surveys have now been concluded, the researchers are engaged in compiling and analysing the data recorded. They are hopeful of publishing the first draft of the atlas by the end of this year and a detailed report next year. Meanwhile, Atlases of three districts - Alappuzha, Thrissur and Kannur - have already been formally released. Furthermore, an online dashboard created in GitHub with details on the locations and the species sighted is available for public viewing.