The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is on. Every year, this four-day count around the world, which started on Friday, aims to rope in birdwatchers and volunteers to collate sightings of as many species as possible, across homes, public spaces and campuses. This year, the organisers are expecting greater participation, since an increased interest in birdwatching was noted in the pandemic year just behind us.
One of the largest citizen science initiatives, started in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society in the US, the event helps scientists learn about global bird populations and track migration patterns.
India, which has been taking part since 2013, stood fourth globally last year in terms of the number of species reported from 194 countries; the top three countries were Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil. Over 2,000 birders across the country observed 924 bird species, 70% of them endemic to India. In 2013, a mere 202 birders had reported 537 species. Bird Count India, which is coordinating the initiative, is hopeful of recording greater bird diversity, which could propel India to the top three.
Going by the pattern so far, state coordinators expect people to venture out in small groups this time. Abhishek Gulshan, GBBC coordinator for the National Capital Region, says people have been gathering in smaller groups, or doing the activity on their own. “Since work from home began, birdwatching is no longer a weekend activity. We have been noticing observation checklists coming in from birding hot spots in the city all through the week. During the GBBC, we used to take people to different habitats but we are not promoting it this year. But I am sure people are planning to do it on their own,” says Gulshan, who runs the Delhi-based nature education outfit NINOX.
The Ladakh Bird Club conducted birdwatching trails for students earlier this week to familiarise them with the eBird app, where observations are recorded, and teach them to identify birds. “We are expecting more participants and diversified reports from different regions this year,” says Lobzang Visuddha, one of the club’s founding members.
The coordinators in Assam are expecting the Bihu Bird Count held last month to boost participation in the GBBC. The Bihu count saw 200 people taking part. “We now have identified district coordinators thanks to the Bihu Bird Count. So, we will get data from across the state instead of just a few pockets,” says Jaydev Mandal, , a former Assam GBBC coordinator and assistant professor in the zoology department at the Madhab Choudhury College, Barpeta.
What Mandal was struggling with, though, was the involvement of educational campuses in the Campus Bird Count (CBC), held along with the GBBC since 2013. Many schools and colleges are just starting to reopen. “We used to register the campuses ourselves but this year, we have asked them to fill the forms themselves. With the pandemic, many are not coming forward. And obviously, no schools have registered,” Mandal says.
Some campuses are taking precautions but going ahead with the count. Coordinators are trying to celebrate the positives. PhD student P.S. Anisha, the coordinator for the Periyar University campus in Salem, Tamil Nadu, is happy, for instance, though they have only 25 participants this year. “Those who are participating are more aware of ornithology and are regular birdwatchers. So it’s qualitative improvement.” In Gauhati University campus and CMC Vellore, meanwhile, the participants will be divided into smaller groups instead of a large group, adhering to pandemic safety protocols.
A few campuses have opened the activity to the public. The GBBC in Cotton University, which is in the heart of Guwahati city, is open to the public. “But we get hardly three or four outsiders,” says Narayan Sharma, the campus coordinator and part of the environmental biology and wildlife sciences department. The university has been taking part in the count since 2016, and has observed 60 species so far including rare ones like Taiga flycatcher and a pair of Indian peregrine falcon, and has at least 30 students signing up for the count. Interestingly, Sharma says, the University has become a mother university of sorts for campus bird-watching, as its former students are initiating campus count in the institutes they are teaching in.
Perhaps, one of the few corporate entities to have taken part in CBC, for the last four years, is the Bhusawal Thermal Power Station located in Maharasthra’s Jalgaon district. for the count since the last four years, the visits have been limited this year. Lakshmikant Neve, who is an engineer with the power station and coordinator of Bhuswal taluk, says that this time the limited number of outsiders will be allowed on campus, where bird watchers have spotted 191 species, including the first sighting of Striated Grassbird recorded in Central India.
The coordinators remain optimistic, hoping that even though students may be unable to participate from campuses, they will still find a way of doing so—from their backyards, balconies and windows.