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Covid-19 pushes birders to observe Salim Ali’s birth anniversary in new ways

From participating in online events and window birding to forming small groups, birders found different but safer ways to celebrate Bird Week

Curlew Sandpiper in Coimbatore sighted by Auxilia and Selvaraju in September.
Curlew Sandpiper in Coimbatore sighted by Auxilia and Selvaraju in September. (Prasath Selvaraju)

Auxilia Helen P doesn’t mind sacrificing her sleep. For the past four months, Auxilia has been waking up early every day of the week, so as to reach the waterbodies in her city of Coimbatore by 6.30 am to observe the avian residents and migrant. This Thursday, however, is special in a way. Auxilia will be for the first time doing the birding and documenting the bird she sees in the course of three hours, thereby paying homage to Indian’s birdman Dr Sálim Ali, whose birth anniversary it is today, November 12.

The high school science teacher at an ICSE school, who considers Dr Ali as the inspiration in pursing her current hobby, has been accompanying her friend Prasath Selvaraj, who is an experienced birder and wildlife biologist, learning to identify and observe birds interact with their habitat. “I am just happy I am getting to pursue my passion at last. Every time I see the birds, they amaze me,” says Auxilia.

Every year on Dr Sálim Ali’s birth anniversary, NGOs and institutions working in wildlife conservation, outreach and research, observe a week long activity in the form of birding competition, drawing competition for children, organising nature trails, and so on, for children and the general public. For obvious reasons this year, the offline activities have been curtailed, while being amplified online.

In Mumbai, which has recorded some of the highest covid-19 cases, online participation in events, and window birding, have been on an upswing. For instance, besides hosting a webinar remembering the legacy of Dr Ali or ‘Old man’ as he is fondly called, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) organised a week-long Sálim Ali Bird Count for birders and birding enthusiasts.

What’s also helped is Maharashtra government officially observing the week as ‘Pakshi Saptah’ (bird week), by asking the forest department to conduct outreach programs. “It’s the first time we are organising birding events at such a large scale. We did a lot of virtual activities, including a virtual tour of Thane Creek Flamingo sanctuary and Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Centre. In comparison to previous years, the queries and engagement birding related activities have increased this time around,” says Vandan Jhaveri, assistant director, eco-tourism, Mangrove Foundation.

Dr Salim Ali. (V. Santharam, Creative Commons).
Dr Salim Ali. (V. Santharam, Creative Commons).

In tier II and smaller cities, though, after months of being at home, some birders like Auxilia and Selvaraju have been venturing out.

In Pune, amateur birding volunteers of Pune Bird Atlas (PBA), a group that was created to document the birds of the city earlier this year, are on their own reaching out to experienced ones and pairing up to visit popular birding spots. “Birders are slowly going back to field with one or two people getting together. You pick up a lot faster when you have a birding partner,” says Siddharth Biniwale, one of the founders of PBA.

There has been a surge in volunteers for PBA since the pandemic. While the Atlas activity of observing birds based on a checklist is currently suspended, its WhatsApp group has been buzzing with amateurs learning how to identify birds, record calls, and other birding information from experienced group members.

The Environment Conservation Group (ECG) usually does a lot of engagement activities for students, such as taking them on nature trail, during the Bird week. However, this year, ECG president Mohammed Saleem is organising bird walks – one today and another on coming Sunday – around Siruvani dam only for limited adult members of the group. “Everyone will be meeting in person after a very long time,” says Saleem. Some members, he adds, are also forming groups of not more than 10 in their localities to observe birds in their locality. The data and photos, thus collected, will be then shared with everyone in ECG group’s WhatsApp account.

In smaller places, however, educational institutes are facilitating bird watches for their students. For instance, the Agasthyamalai Community Conservation Centre, part of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE, a non-profit which works towards conservation and sustainability at grassroots level) are organising a bird trail at Vagaikulam Bird habitat for students of environmental sciences in Tirunelveli’s Manonmaniam Sundaranar University today.

To ensure social distancing, only 30 students will be participating, says M Mathivanan, senior research associate at the conservation centre. The centre is also inaugurating Sálim Ali bird watching clubs in three southern districts in Tamil Nadu – Tenkasi, Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi – which will train people in birding. It will also conduct birding trips to Tamiraparani wetlands every second Saturday of the month. “This year, the celebrations are toned down, and we are only doing localised activities,” says Mathivanan.

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