Early on a Sunday morning, before the sun had even risen, hundreds of Mumbai residents stumbled out of their beds. They went crisscrossing through the city and then flocked to certain spots, where they were seen craning their necks towards trees, in near silence. It was unexpected for Mumbai – a gathering of people and yet, the sounds of morning birds were louder than the sounds of humans themselves.

But the cheeping, whistling and gurgling sounds were exactly what these groups of people had woken up for – these were birding enthusiasts racing through the concrete jungle trying to spot as many avian species as they could, as part of India Bird Race, a multi-city birding event that took place in Mumbai on February 10.

At Bhandup Pumping Station, off the Eastern Express Highway, we walked past the salt pans and the electricity poles on one side and a sewage treatment plant on the other and landed up at what is one of the hotspots for birding in Mumbai.

“Rosy starling,” whispered the team leader, Tushar Nidambur, as a cluster of the noisy, rose-pink and black birds made its way to a flowering thicket for breakfast.

For a first-time birdwatcher, it seems hard to wrap one’s head around how the location of one of the city’s main sewage treatment plants attracts birds.

“This area in fact has a variety of habitats – scrubland, grassland, wetland, mangroves – which make an ideal mix of habitats to spot more birds,” said expert birder Nidambur, revealing what’s perhaps the key to an event like the India Bird Race, to cover more habitats to spot more birds.

Within a few hours, Tushar and his team, comprising Sanjeev Jain and novice bird-watcher Suvrat Jain, had noted more than 65 bird species at the Bhandup Pumping Station alone, ranging from the ubiquitous house crow to the fascinating bird of prey, the marsh harrier, as well as waders such as ducks, egrets and gulls that have found a sanctuary where the wastewater channel goes on to meet the Thane creek. The area, once fading towards degradation, has been revived over the recent years with efforts by activists, NGOs like Vanashakti and the state’s Mangrove Cell.

Participants of the 2019 India Bird Race scan a beach for shorebirds in the Mumbai metropolitan region. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli.

The Mumbai Bird Race, started in 2005, has now grown into a nation-wide event across 13 cities this year where birding enthusiasts, including many first-timers, participate to spot as many birds as they can, within a single day, from dawn to dusk, in their respective cities. In Mumbai alone, the Bird Race this year saw over 350 participants who covered the entire Mumbai Metropolitan Region during the course of the day and spotted at least 234 bird species across the region. For the urban jungle that is Mumbai, associated frequently with the less pleasant bird species like pigeons and crows, it’s a revealing figure of the biodiversity that even a densely populated city can hold. “Bird species seen in Mumbai are around 20% of total bird species in the country,” said Nidambur, an active birder for 13 years who has been participating in the Mumbai Bird Race right since its inception.

Around the same time as the India Bird Race takes place across the country, there are other events like the Great Backyard Bird Count India, conducted for four days each February, which encourage birders and even first-timers to step out into their immediate environment and record the avian residents of the city.

Mumbai, the urban nest

Alongside skyscrapers, malls and industries, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, covering over 4,000 square kilometres, also houses a variety of natural habitats that make it conducive for birds and biodiversity to thrive.

As per data currently recorded on the eBird monitoring app, hotspots in Mumbai, based on the variety of species include Sewri Jetty, Mahim Nature Park, Lokhandwala Lake, Bombay Veterinary College Campus and the Mumbai Port Trust Park – all right in the midst of the bustling metropolis.

Naturalist and bird expert Sunjoy Monga, coordinator of the India Bird Race, elaborated that, “on an average, any city in India would have about 160-200 bird species. But some have more because either they lie in important migratory pathways or have varied habitats. Mumbai benefits from its location and its biogeographical positioning – we’ve got the hilly areas of the Sahyadris nearby and adjoining mountain ranges, different types of forests, freshwater wetlands, we had grass and scrub, mangrove trees and tidal estuaries and of course the coastal area also.”

Monga added that Mumbai’s built-up city itself can be considered as a landscape attractive to birds, with “lots of garbage dumps which are a sort of bonanza for birds”.

Black kites cover the sky near a garbage dump in Mumbai. The population of some birds such as black kites has increased due to the increase in garbage. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli.

“All of that sort of hotchpotch of habitats conspires to create conditions where there is a lot of diversity of birds, of which some birds benefit more and are more in numbers. And then there some which are lesser numbers because it all depends on how they can exploit the food sources and the various ecological advantages they can take,” he told Mongabay-India.

In this year’s Mumbai Bird Race, more than 90 species of birds were spotted in urban precincts itself. However, more birds isn’t necessarily an indicator of a healthy environment. In fact, the kind of birds observed could be an indicator of higher pollution and garbage – of something that is not right.

“You are watching these beautiful creatures on dirt and filth. They are there only because they can manage to find their sustenance there. It robs away from the essence of that natural feel, of the design of ecology,” said Monga. While in terms of numbers it’s great to see lakhs of birds on garbage, it is not the ideal scenario one would want, he emphasises.

Pretty flamingos fly in with a message

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 credit: 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 credit: Aishwarya Sridhar.

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 credit: 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 Great Backyard Bird Count 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 Great Backyard Bird Count 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 Great Backyard Bird Count this year, explained that events such as this 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 credit: Kartik Chandramouli.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.