Once again, it is that time of the year when colourful avians arrive from far-off lands to escape sub-zero temperatures and spend a few months in comparatively warmer climes, much to the delight of ornithologists and birders. TreeTake takes a look at bird migration, a phenomenon which has always fascinated mankind …
Bird migration is the regular seasonal movement, often north and south, along a flyway between breeding and wintering grounds. Many species of birds migrate. Migration carries with it the risk of predation and mortality, including from hunting by humans, and is driven primarily by the availability of food. It occurs mainly in the northern hemisphere.
Interestingly, migration of storks, turtle doves and swallows was recorded as early as 3,000 years ago. Bird migration finds mention in the works of ancient Greek authors like Homer and Aristotle and in the Book of Job. In 1749, Johannes Leche of Finland began recording dates of arrivals of spring migrants. Now, of course, modern scientific studies use advanced techniques like bird ringing and satellite tracking to trace migrant birds. However, threats to migratory birds have also grown with burgeoning population resulting in habitat destruction, especially at stopovers and wintering sites, as well as structures like power lines.
Many bird populations migrate long distances along a flyway. The most common pattern involves flying north in the spring to breed in the temperate summer and returning in the autumn to wintering grounds in warmer regions to the south. In the southern hemisphere, the directions are reversed.
Significance of bird migration
Though seasonal guests, migratory avians bring a lot of positive impact with them. Birds from 29 countries fly to India every year. The country witnesses influx of large flocks during September-October, signifying the beginning of migration. As many as 1,349 species of birds have been recorded as of 2019, of which 78 are endemic to the country and 212 species are globally threatened, according to the Government of India.
Migratory birds play an important role in biodiversity and eco-system. They act as pest control agents by devouring insects and other organisms that harm the environment and crops. Disasters like locust attacks are the result of absence of birds. Migratory birds also help in dispersal of seeds, leading to maintenance of biodiversity along their routes. Ducks can transport fish eggs in their guts to new water bodies. The droppings of birds, also known as guano, are rich in nitrogen and act as organic fertilizers. Egg shells can add calcium and other minerals. Migratory birds form both prey and predator bases in eco-systems seasonally and can, therefore, have an ecological impact. Prevalence of migratory birds helps analyse the state of environment in an area.
Every year, World Migratory Bird Day is observed in May and October as part of a campaign to raise public awareness about migratory birds and the need for international cooperation to protect them. Migratory birds have a good morphology and physiology on account of which they are able to fly long distances. They have an uncanny ability to navigate with good accuracy, using the sun, the stars, the Earth's magnetism etc. They know when to migrate and when to return. For their specific reasons, they do not hesitate to migrate to far locations. Migratory birds can fly as far as 16000 miles and some fly at a speed of 30mph to reach their destination. With this speed, they can reach in 533 hours whereas if they fly 8 hours per day, they can reach the final destination in 66 days. They fly at different speeds and at different altitudes and before embarking on their journey, prepare themselves well for the journey by increasing their body weight or by keeping food reserves. Different birds migrate at different timings but most of the birds prefer to fly at night because usually, it is much safer for them due to fewer predators or cooler air at night with which they can fly and rest easily. They also prepare for their return because, after exhaustion of their whole energy in the long-distance journey, they usually feel hungry and require food and water.
Some important species which migrate to India
Siberian Cranes: An endangered species, the Siberian Crane is a very distinctive member of the crane family. It travels 4,000 miles to India every winter to escape the deathly cold and lack of food in the Siberian regions. It is mainly spotted at the Kaladeo National Park or the Bharatpur National Park.
Greater Flamingo: These prefer an island called Anda Bet, in the Greater Rann of Kutch which is the largest nesting site of the species in the country. They descend in October.
Ruff: These birds of the Arctic Tundra region prefer India propelled by sub-zero temperatures of their native land.
Northern Shoveler: This bird, a duck, from Europe makes a long journey to settle in marshy wetlands in north India.
Rosy Pelican: This migratory bird, which has a wingspan close to 12 feet in length, migrates to the north of India, settling down in shallow, freshwater lakes with plenty of fish.
Gadwall: The small brown duck travels from Europe and North America to India. It settles in freshwater reedy marshes, lakes and other low-water bodies, near vegetation where it can easily get food. It is a common visitor, spotted in north and central India.
Black-tailed Godwit: The black-tailed bird found in Iceland and the far east of Russia migrates to wetlands in north India to escape the harsh winters.
Spotted Redshank: This bird from Scandinavia finds India best for survival as it needs a moderate temperature and tropical conditions for its nests.
Bluethroat: Named thus on account of the gleaming blue feathers on its throat, the tiny sparrow-like bird cannot survive the freezing temperatures of Europe or Alaska and hence spends winter in India.
Uttar Pradesh a birder’s joy
With over 100 wetlands, 10 of which have been designated as Ramsar sites, Uttar Pradesh too plays host to any number of migratory birds. Any wetland that intends to preserve the natural ecosystem and allow utilization of resources is listed under Ramsar Sites under the Ramsar Convention. Out of the total Ramsar Sites in India, Uttar Pradesh has the highest number, with nine wetlands considered to be of international significance. Ramsar sites include rivers, lakes, marshes, flooded forests, coral reefs, deltas, mangroves and man-made reservoirs and ponds.
Ramsar Sites in UP
Upper Ganga River – From Brajghat, Garh Mukteshwar to Narora in Bulandshahr
Sarsai Nawar Jheel – Etawah
Sandi Bird Sanctuary – Hardoi
Samaspur Bird Sanctuary – Rae Bareli
Saman Bird Sanctuary – Mainpuri
Nawabganj Bird Sanctuary – Unnao
Parvati Arga Bird Sanctuary – Gonda
Sur Sarovar – Agra
Bakhira Wildlife Sanctuary – Sant Kabir Nagar
Haiderpur Wetland – Bijnor & Muzaffarnagar
Nawabganj Bird Sanctuary: A virtual heaven for bird-watchers, nature lovers and those seeking a break from the humdrum city life, Nawabganj Bird Sanctuary nestles in tranquil lush green stretch on 224.6 hectare area of Unnao district in Uttar Pradesh. The sanctuary becomes lively in winter to many international and national migratory birds like Garganey teal, Mallard, purple moorhen, Little Grebe, Spoonbill Duck, Red Wattled Lapwing, Wigon and many more winged guests.
Sandi Bird Sanctuary, having an area of 3.09 hectares, is situated in Hardoi district on Hardoi-Sandi Road around the Deher lake, with the Garra river in close proximity to this sanctuary. This sanctuary has been listed as an "important bird area" by the Bombay Natural History Society. It is said that the migratory birds halt for some time in this river before visiting the Sandi Bird Sanctuary. The aim of the sanctuary is protection and conservation of the wetland with special emphasis on local and migratory birds, conservation of their natural habitat including aquatic plants and animals.
The Samaspur Bird Sanctuary is restricted for preservation of bird species, including various migratory birds and is located in Samaspur area near Salon town of Rai Bareli district of Uttar Pradesh. This sanctuary is not too large and has only a small area of 780 hectares. Having a fleet of more than 250 species, this sanctuary is one of the best and most liked birding destination. Vulture, Kingfishers, Spot Bill, Teal Common and Teal Whistling etc. have made the sanctuary their permanent habitat. In this sanctuary, resident and domestic bird Surkhab is also found in large population.
Okhla Bird Sanctuary: Thousands of migratory birds, including Shoveller Duck, Northern Pintail, Common Teal, Gadwal Duck and Blue Winged Teal visit the sanctuary from October to March. The Okhla Bird Sanctuary (OBS) has an area of approximately 4 square kilometres and is situated at the entrance of NOIDA in Gautam Budh Nagar district It is situated at a point where river Yamuna enters of Uttar Pradesh, leaving the territory of Delhi.
Surajpur Bird Sanctuary: It is an excellent example of an urban wetland in Yamuna River basin. It forms suitable breeding ground for waterfowl such as Spot-Billed Duck, Lesser-Whistling Duck, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Comb Duck and wintering waterfowl such as Red-Crested Pochard, Ferruginous Pochard, Bar-Headed Goose, Greylag Goose, Common Teal, Northern Shoveler and Gadwall. Since 2010, the Uttar Pradesh forest department, in collaboration with WWF-India and with support of the Greater Noida Industrial Development Authority, has implemented a project for conservation, planning and development of Surajpur wetland, collectively making efforts to restore the bleak area into a lively bird sanctuary. Therefore, the wetland sets a unique example of protection and conservation of biodiversity close to urban areas.
Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary is more popularly known as Keetham Lake, after the lake and the surrounding area which constitute the sanctuary. The lake is home to over 126 species of migratory and resident waterfowl. Initially it covered a modest are of 4.03 sq kms. Later, the forest department expanded the sanctuary area to cover 8 sq kms by planting trees around the lake to increase the green cover for its wild animals.
Parwati-Arga Bird Sanctuary: Situated near Gonda district of Uttar Pradesh, Parvati and Arga are two connected water bodies comprising an area of 1,084 hectares. They are rain-fed lakes in a deep natural depression in the Gangetic plains of the terai region. This water body is naturally able to sustain resident birds throughout the year and migratory birds during winter season.
Lakh Bahosi Sanctuary is a bird sanctuary spread over two shallow lakes near the villages of Lakh and Bahosi (4 km apart) in Kannauj district. It is about 40 km from Kannauj. Primarily a bird sanctuary with rich diversity of avifauna, species from 49 genera of the total 97 inhabiting India can be seen in the sanctuary. It is one of India's largest bird sanctuaries, covering 80 sq. km and also includes a stretch of the Upper Ganges canal. The sanctuary plays host to various migratory birds from November to March.
Vijay Sagar Pakshi Vihar is a bird sanctuary in Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh. It has been developed on the shores of Vijay Sagar; a charming lake built by Vijay Pal Chandela during the 11th century. The migratory birds flock here in winter.
Sarsai Nawar is a small wetland, enroute to Saman Wildlife Sanctuary, in Etawah district of Uttar Pradesh. It comprises two small lakes that attract Sarus Cranes, White Ibis and other water birds in large numbers. It has a large population of the threatened species of Sarus Cranes, the world's tallest flying birds.
Saman Bird Sanctuary is located in Bhogav, on Agra-Mainpuri-Farrukhabad. It remains one of the best places in the state to view the majestic Sarus Cranes. Saman sanctuary is also a haven for several species of migratory birds like the Common Teal, Northern Pintail, Great White Pelican and species of storks, The resident population of storks in the sanctuary includes Painted Stork, Block-necked Stork, Open-billed Stock and Woolly-necked Stork.
Bakhira Bird Sanctuary is the largest natural flood plain wetland of India in Sant Kabir Nagar district of eastern . This is an important lake of eastern UP, which provides a wintering and staging ground for a number of migratory waterfowls and a breeding ground for resident birds.
Shekha Bird Sanctuary is a 62 acre-lake near the village of Shekha, 17 km east of Aligarh . It is notable for the large number of migratory birds which arrive here in winter. Shekha lake is a perennial fresh water body that came into existence after the formation of the Upper Ganga Canal adjacent to the lake. Birds seen here include Black-necked Stork, White Ibis, Spoonbill, Greylag Goose, Bar-headed Goose, Lesser Whistling Teal, Ruddy Shelduck, Northern Pintail, Common Teal, Indian Spot-Billed Duck, Sarus crane, Asian Openbill Stork, Red-Breasted Flycatcher, Black- Necked Stork, Wooly-Necked Stork, Common Pochard, Ferruginous Duck, Baer's Pochard, Tufted Duck, Indian Peafowl, Common Quail, Black Francolin, Gray Francolin, Little Grebe, Asian Openbill, Woolly-Necked Stork, Black-Necked Stork, Little Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Purple Heron, Cattle Egret, Indian Pond-Heron, Black-Headed Ibis, Red-Naped Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Black-Shouldered Kite, Egyptian Vulture, Booted Eagle, bonelli's eagle, shikra,. Black kite and Egyptian vulture etc.
Haiderpur Bird Sanctuary in Muzaffarnagar-Bijnor is home to over 320 species of birds, which include partridge, quail, peafowl, pigeon, falcon, hawk, spotbilled duck, Ceane, eagle, owl, white vulture, cuckoo, nightingale, Kingfisher, mynah, red-ovented bulbul, sparrow and baya weaver etc. Migratory Birds, both local and foreign also flock the numerous water bodies present in Hastinapur sanctuary.
Dr Mukul Pandya, a keen bird watcher from Agra, said the main migratory birds of Keetham Lake included Bar-headed Geese, Dalmatian and Great white Pelicans, Spotbill Ducks, Ruddy Shelduck, Greylag Geese, Purple Heron, Northern Shoveller, Northern Pintail and Garganey etc. “Ruddy Shelduck/Sheldrake has arrived on Yamuna downstream from Agra,” he said, adding that a huge flock of Demoiselle Crane was sighted over Kamtari Ghat near Jaitpur (Agra), probably on way to Kheechen in Rajasthan.
Forest department work
According to SK Sharma, PCCF, UP: “No special preparation or arrangement is needed for migratory birds. After the monsoon, the sanctuaries are cleaned which is part of the work plan. The foresters do ensure that no disturbance of any kind is caused to the birds.”
Neeraj Kumar, CCF, Eco development also said: “No preparation as such is needed in advance, as there is ample water and food in wetlands post monsoon. Besides, birds land not only in sanctuaries but in any wetland or area where there is water. As for hunting threat, forest staff is kept on the alert, not only in sanctuaries but in any area where birds are sighted. If and when there is any incident, which happens once or twice a year, strict action is taken under the Wildlife Protection Act.” He, however, advised people to not feed the birds titbits.
Threat to migratory birds
Loss of habitat is a major threat to migratory birds. This can happen through de-watering or draining of wetlands, encroachment for agriculture, planting of non-native trees and loss of areas to urban development etc. Environmental pollution may also pose a risk.
What experts say
Dr Asad Rahmani, member of the Governing Body of Wetlands International South Asia, and former director of the Bombay Natural History Society, said: “I do not know the latest situation but looking at the wetlands of other states as well as of Uttar Pradesh, one can say that the condition is not good. Sandi, one of the most famous wetlands of UP did not have enough water till last year. It was said that the monsoon was not good. However, it is not the monsoon that is responsible for adequate or insufficient water in wetlands. In most wetlands, there are bunds, so how will water from the catchment area come? Wetlands were never dependent on rainwater solely. This is the Gangetic plain. It is flooded every year and should be so. This is the ecosystem which was developed. Wetlands are basically depressions filled with water from surrounding areas. If you surround the depressions with bunds, how will water flow to the depressions? As for other things, grazing is not a problem in wetlands. It removes biomass. But overgrazing is. Hunting, trapping and disturbing the water regime are also problems. So, the bunds near wetlands should be removed. If some system has been in place for decades, it means it is working. Eco-restoration means finding out the earlier water regime and restoring it. There are good hydrologists who can help do this."
In fact, Dr Rahmani had also written a letter to the Chief Wildlife Warden of Uttar Pradesh to bring to his attention the pitiable condition of Okhla Bird Sanctuary, which was totally dry. Apparently, the Irrigation Department had drained the water for "repair purposes" (as they claimed).
“Actually, wetlands are shrinking day by day and their area is being reduced quite substantially across Uttar Pradesh. Although some new Ramsar Sites have been identified and some wetlands declared of international importance, many wetlands are not in good shape. There is a lot of proliferation of exotic, invasive species. So, there is a need for restoration of all wetlands of UP so that the habitat of migratory birds would be more welcoming as they come from long distances. All wetlands should be restored with a strict check on poaching and encroachment. District wetland committees have been formed in many districts which should monitor the wetland in their area. The migratory birds are our guests. We should prepare to welcome them in the same manner in which we welcome a guest in our house,” said Prof Venkatesh Dutta, of the department of environmental studies, BBAU.
Gopal Singh, a wildlife specialist and photographer of Agra, said: “Jodhpur Jhal (on the border of Agra and Mathura) and Sur Sarovar (or Keetham Lake in Agra) attract Pelicans, Flamingos And Flycatcher etc. Not only water birds but other birds like Golden Oriole and Black –backed Oriole are also seen here. However, Keetham Lake or Sur Sarovar has deep water whereas many migratory birds need shallow water. Such birds cannot go there. So, if more man-made islands can be ensured in this water body, it would help in their nesting and breeding. Also, there is a proliferation of Vilayati Babool trees which need to be pruned. They almost hide the lake from view. Besides, if Jodhpur Jhal, which has ideal shallow water, is developed, it can become even more popular than Keetham in future.”
An avid bird watcher said on condition of anonymity: “In some countries, farmers flood their harvested fields with water to provide a place to these birds for a temporary stop-over, where they can refuel before proceeding on their onward journey. It would be nice if this could be done here too.”
Government efforts to boost wetlands
In view of the importance of local communities in conserving the wetland ecosystem, the Centre has announced the Amrit Dharohar Scheme which will promote their unique conservation values. This scheme will be implemented over the next three years to encourage optimal use of wetlands, and enhance bio-diversity, carbon stock, eco-tourism opportunities and income generation for local communities. Similarly, the Uttar Pradesh government has come up with ‘One District One Wetland' (ODOW) initiative, under which every district in Uttar Pradesh will get a wetland as an ecotourism site.
While there are wetlands and Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in UP, those which lie outside protected areas will be conserved under ODOW initiative. The state government in 2019 had notified the UP Wetlands Authority to prepare a wetland atlas for the state, including the ones lying outside forest. Ramgarh Taal of Gorakhpur, which lies outside forest, was the first wetland to be notified in 2020