Last March, when the lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) forced people to retreat into their homes, Irfan Jeelani, a wildlife enthusiast and birdwatcher from Ganderbal district, and a few others started the Birds of Kashmir page on Facebook. The idea was to get people to observe their immediate surroundings, from their windows or gardens, click images of birds, and share them on the group.
Birds of Kashmir is one of several such new groups in J&K, reflecting the growing popularity of birdwatching in a region that is home to species like the Orange Bullfinch, Kashmir Nuthatch and Kashmir Nutcracker—but where rare species such as the Tundra Swan, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Yellow-hammer and Reed Bunting have been sighted in the last couple of years. Birders from around the country had begun flocking to the Kashmir valley, home to hot spots such as the Dachigam National Park, Zabarwan Hills, Overa-Aru Wildlife Sanctuary and Kazinag National Park, as well as the wetlands of Hokersar, Hygam, Chatlam, Shallabugh and Manasbal. Kashmir Birdwatch, the region’s oldest birding club, has hosted at least five groups from cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi and Trichur.
Kashmir’s birdwatching groups have not only given a fillip to tourism but have helped locals find employment by training them in the skills of bird-spotting—so much so that Jeelani maintains birdwatching is becoming a recognisable niche in the tourism sector. “We are training local educated and unemployed youth so that they can earn a living as tour guides for birder groups visiting J&K,” says Jeelani. A tour guide can earn ₹1,500-3,000 for a day’s work, depending on the number of people in the visiting group and their target species.
Birds of Kashmir hopes to establish a bird rescue centre. At present, members are urged to share images and information if they come across incidents of poaching, flagging them on social media and WhatsApp groups. In January, the group contributed to launch its first bird calendar, featuring different species, including some rare ones, clicked by members over the past year. Some 500 calendars were given away free to those who reached out to the group.
Eager members of Kashmir Birdlife, set up last April, share images on their Facebook platform every few days, including those of rare species like the Daurian Redstart, Blyth’s Rosefinch, Common Redstart, white-tailed eagle and Eurasian Curlew.
Over the past year, Birds of Kashmir, which holds offline meetings regularly now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted, has grown to more than 5,000 members online from J&K and other areas.
Kashmir Birdwatch, set up in 2009 by horticulturist Tassaduq Moeen and four wildlife graduates from Kashmir, started a Facebook page in 2011 that now has more than 9,000 members. It has so far trained 15 bird guides who, in turn, train others.
All this seems to have translated into a “spree” in visits by birders from outside the region, says Intesar Suhail, a wildlife warden in J&K’s wildlife protection department and a founding member of Kashmir Birdwatch. Suhail says birdwatching was practically non-existent in Kashmir till their group of young wildlife graduates arrived on the scene in the mid-1990s. “We conducted extensive surveys of important bird habitats, including Upper Dachigam, Overa-Aru Wildlife Sanctuary, Kazinag National Park and wetlands like Wular, Hokersar, Shallabugh and Chatlam,” says Suhail.
By 2005, Suhail, his associates and other enthusiasts had started collecting images and information on rare birds spotted in the region. Today the group has members from various fields—agriculture, engineering, information technology and bureaucracy. “We felt there was a need for a common platform on social media for the swelling number of bird enthusiasts to send in their queries and be addressed and answered by other birdwatchers,” says Suhail, explaining their presence on Facebook.
Over the last five years, Kashmir Birdwatch has been a key contributor to the Citizen Science Initiative, an online project where birders worldwide are able to create an account on the eBird portal and upload data from their birding trips, creating baseline data and contributing also to the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). “The data thus generated can be used by researchers anywhere. Members of our group have been uploading the data on the web portal since 2015,” says Suhail. “We have so far contributed more than 250 bird checklists, which cover around 300 bird species, on the eBird portal.” They also help conduct the annual waterfowl census in wetlands.
Kashmir Birdwatch, in fact, has come out with the “first comprehensive checklist of bird species found in J&K, which was subsequently published in the reputed research publication Springer in 2020”, says Suhail. They have helped add species that were either not known to be found in Kashmir or were unconfirmed. “In some cases, there was no photographic evidence of these birds in Kashmir,” says Suhail. That is changing.
Majid Maqbool is a Srinagar-based journalist and editor.