Why count birds?
On a half-wooden, half-iron boat, a team of men and women in heavy winter gear and heavy-duty binoculars set sail on a very, very cold winter morning on January 5. Their destination was the sandbars and shallow water lagoons of the mighty Padma River.
The team comprising conservationists, bird watchers, and foresters were conducting a census, the first of its kind in Rajshahi division. While this was the first time that the Bangladesh Forest Department and other official bodies were involved in a census of this kind in Rajshahi division, it wasn't the first census per se in the area. In fact, bird censuses are now commonplace in the country—well, by commonplace, I mean carried out by a niche group of scientists, conservationists, ornithologists, and birdwatching enthusiasts/experts. From the high seas beyond Sandwip to the sandbars of Sonadia, from the shrublands of Tetulia to even tea gardens in Srimangal, the country has seen a surge in citizen science revolving around birdwatching and census in the last few years.
I came to know about the census from a facebook post. Not long after, through a strange set of circumstances, I found myself with a group of men, women, and bird guidebooks travelling to the south east coast of Bangladesh.
And in the span of those travels I chanced upon something enchanting. A barren mudflat that stretched for miles ahead; grey and steely, reflecting the mirage of the horizon, yet a land brimming with life. I saw ruddy turnstones appear fleetingly, only to be lost right back into the landscape strewn with red and brown pebbles on a bed of grey mud. Through a spotting scope, we would scan the land and conservationist Sayam U Chowdhury would erupt in squeals as he spotted a spoon-billed sandpiper, busily feeding in the mudflats. That was the identification trait for the tiny bird, of which less than a few hundred remained back then. The critically endangered bird had this nervous energy—it was tiny, tinier than a house-sparrow and it fed on the soft mud like a supersonic beast. It blended into the landscape and had flown all the way from Russia to spend its winter here.
It is data such as this, and rare sightings and the ongoing biodiversity decline worldwide, that prompt conservationists to continue their work. Bird censuses are a way to monitor environmental trends in our local area, identify potential problems, and create a wealth of data.
In the research carried out in Rajshahi that I mentioned earlier, one day of census counted a total of 4,025 birds of 37 species of water birds in the chars of Padma. Of them, 27 were migratory bird species and the rest were resident birds.
Even the highest and second highest count of individuals—1,100 were of gadwall and 330 of Temnick's stint species—are both migratory bird species. This is important because Rajshahi division falls under the Central Asian Flyway, which means that migratory birds fly over these areas to reach their wintering grounds and often stop here for rest and replenishment.
The Padma and Brahmaputra river chars have been hotspots for birdwatchers and ornithologists. The somewhat untouched grasslands host many different species of birds, so much so that a rare sighting of Baikal teal, majestic and glorious in gait, was also seen during the census at Padma.
Ornithologists under the Wildbird Monitoring Program, which was established last year, have also been tagging wild ducks with GPS-enabled satellite tags to understand the flight details of birds. The satellite tags and the wealth of data they provide to the conservationists is a long-term scientific endeavour. Flight patterns will reveal where and how the birds interact with their habitats, and their stopovers will show which places require long term conservation plans, among other things.
In Rajshahi, for this season, conservationists have satellite-tagged two species of wild ducks. They tagged a common teal, weighing in at 310 gms and clocking in nearly 10 kms on the first day, and another 13.5 kms on day two.
"We observed that the bird, especially during the nights, travelled to paddy fields to feed on small insects and vegetation in the soil. It is natural that they also leave bird droppings in the field which in turn enhances the soil fertility," says ABM Sarowar Alam, highlighting some of the ecosystem services of avian fauna on their surrounding landscape.
In addition to enhancing soil quality, birds are also ecological indicators, and maintaining a database of their populations and habitat preferences can even help shape policies.
Sayam U Chowdhury, conservationist working on endangered species in Bangladesh, says, "Scientists and conservationists need such data at their disposal because this can deter development projects on sensitive habitats or help in declaring protected areas."
According to the National Audubon Society, birds are the "canary in the coal mine" for our environment. Their health, abundance, and distribution can signal trends in the health of the larger environment. They are basically like the warning bells of nature—when the birds leave, it means the habitat is not doing well, it is suffering.
Here in Bangladesh, citizen science too is starting to pick up pace. eBird, an app run by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is being fed by data from local bird photographers and birdwatchers and has gained immense popularity.
"Many people have started to use this app to report sightings of even fairly common birds which are often neglected in more focused censuses. This will help in future predictions and conservation actions. In Bangladesh there has been an overall decline in the number of birds which is no surprise because of the degradation of habitats. But certain areas, especially the coast which is a very dynamic zone and is gaining landmass, was showing signs of improvement and growing number of birds. But now new development plans in the area is likely to threaten that."
Natural calamities, wars, and exploitation worldwide have left the natural order of things under deep, lasting threat. As climate crisis becomes the new reality, it is up to us to continue the scientific work in the backdrop to guide policies and decisions.
Abida R Chowdhury is a journalist at The Daily Star, with a background in environmental science and a keen interest in animals and wildlife.
The Bangladesh Bird Club has been assisting various
organisations with bird census throughout the years.