Every winter, waves of migrating birds flock to India. Millions are drawn to the Western Ghats, one of the world’s premier biodiversity hot spots. Some birds, like Siberian cranes and bar-headed geese, actually fly over the Himalayas on their epic journey. Black redstarts and blue rock thrushes leave for warmer climes. Wagtails, godwits and sandpipers follow water. Pied cuckoos, ospreys, bee eaters and drongos head south.
And then there’s the greenish warbler.
They flit among tree canopies on their southward migration, heard rather than seen. The tiny leaf-warbler’s incessant chiswee chirp has the repetitive lulling of a generic meditation soundtrack.
Getting a photograph of them is out of the question, and even in a picture, the paradise flycatcher would steal the show anyway. Most birders would just pass by the warblers’ tree, searching for more aesthetically interesting species.
But warbler counts are an essential part of tracking long-term trends. The commonness of greenish warblers makes them a great candidate for bird counts. With larger numbers, statistical anomalies can be minimized and it’s easier to tease apart different factors affecting the population. Common birds can be illuminating indicator species that reflect the health of other species and ecosystems. Yet barely a handful of short-term studies have been done on the greenish warbler and its leaf-loving kin.Sahas Barve is a PhD student from Cornell University studying high-altitude bird communities in the Himalayas. He says though greenish warblers are drab, they travel from as far away as Turkey and Siberia, and in southern India “every mango tree has a greenish warbler.”
That makes greenish warblers easy to ignore. But not every avian species can be an elusive bird of paradise. Tracking some of the more mundane migrants may be more fruitful than merely keeping a tally of more exciting and rare species.
“These days people want pictures,” Barve says of competitive birding. “They want to see more species, new species all the time.”
Rahul Rao, the co-founder and director of Infinite Journeys, an international ecotourism company with a specialty in birding, says birders are “out there to see what is not easily seen.”
“Greenish warblers are very common,” Rao says. “If you just walk down this lane, you might see one.”
The booms, honks and heat outside the Infinite Journeys headquarters in Pune, India, are at odds with the cool, freshly painted offices. Over a cup of sweet coffee, Rao describes his business and why he loves connecting photographers with amazing places and birds.
“It’s a passion turned profession,” Rao says of running ecotours around the world, though India remains his favorite locale. “We have the Himalayas, we have the seashores, mangroves, rainforest. You name it we have it.”
Rao has been birding around the Pune area for almost 40 years. He has seen urban encroachment and worries that “birds don’t have a chance.”
“Pune has exploded with the growth it has seen over the past several years,” says Rao, who remembers growing up in the once-small city and how expansion has “taken a toll on these ecosystems.”
He says birders can help by contributing to science and keeping tabs on species coming through their backyards. For Rao, this means keeping diligent species checklists. Over three years, he and other Pune birders listed over 135 species in just one square kilometer in the Sinhagarh Valley, a thirty minute drive outside the city.
The road up to the valley winds through several villages, framed by steep basalt hills. Teak and ficus trees line dry, winter streambeds and small farm fields. Jungle babblers fly in flocks among the trees.
“To beat the chaotic part of the city, we come back here for a quick ‘nap’, maybe,” Rao says, laughing, binoculars around his neck.
Nearby, a plum-headed parakeet nibbles a chiku fruit and a white-throated kingfisher surveys a small ditch. His shrill call echoes across the valley.
A streak of white in a nearby clearing heralds the area’s coveted migrant: an Asian Paradise Flycatcher. The Marathi name means “arrow bird,” the name explained by a female darting between branches, flashing her rufous wings and back. Both sexes sport a blue-black crest and an old fable tells how this “cursed fairy” with the black face was spited by God for being overly prideful for his all-white beauty. And he is beautiful. The male has two long tail feathers, which undulate and flicker to stillness with the poise of a Bharayatam dancer’s hands.
The greenish warbler can’t compete.
Rao listens for a moment and offhandedly gestures at a tree.
“There’s some greenish warblers in there,” he says.
The warblers, true to their name, blend with the bland green-gray of the leaves. A fast, small movement could be the birds—but it could also just be a leaf fluttering in the breeze.
Migrant Watch is a citizen science project run by volunteers to track species migration. Its goal is to watch for changes in patterns and numbers of birds over time, which could be related to climate change or habitat loss.
The project started in 2007 because of the lack of migration data available in India. The volunteers began with tracking just 30 species their first year and now have collected almost 30,000 records of about 250 species.
Mousumi Ghosh is a volunteer and regular contributor to Migrant Watch. In one of her blog posts about identifying leaf warblers, Ghosh recalls being a birder who “conveniently ignored every warbler” she saw. She ended up studying leaf warblers for her dissertation work and discovered there’s much more to the tiny birds than meets the eye.
“Migrating long distances takes a lot of energy, particularly for smaller species,” Ghosh writes, explaining the warblers go back to the same wintering grounds year after year, sometimes traveling thousands of miles.
Ghosh says that limited food and poor monsoons impact the species’ ability to migrate back north. Being able to track population responses could reflect changes in habitat and climate.
That kind of long term study is challenging. Though Migrant Watch is certainly considered a success, the project still has pitfalls. Citizen contribution may be an invaluable and undertapped resource for research, but it lacks the rigor and methodical process of academic science.
Satish Pande, an ornithologist at Maharashtra Education Society’s Abasaheb Garware College, where he teaches beginner birding classes, makes an effort to train his students in research, but acknowledges ornithology in India is “all amateur work.”
“It’s a people science,” he says during one of his lectures. “It’s all you and me making a difference in this ornithology work.”
Drongo mimicry calls play on speakers. Fans whir over the heads of nearly 150 students sitting in rows of plastic lawn chairs. All eyes are forward, watching a guest presenter’s slideshow.
Pande introduces each speaker, then stands at the back of the room. He joins a group of men who help him run the ELA Foundation, a conservation organization Pande founded. In his work, Pande sees no separation between research and conservation activism.
“Birds are one of the means to nature,” Pande says to the class, encouraging them to treat birding as a “service to nature,” and to join the ELA Foundation.
Pande says he believes in “the goodwill of people” and that birders can make a difference in conservation. Many do want to save habitat: Save grasslands for the endangered Great Indian Bustard, save the meadow stage for cranes’ mating dances, save the trees that add texture to pictures of Asian Paradise Flycatchers.
But the repetition of good science is about as appealing as the greenish warbler’s colors. Sometimes the difficulty of conservation lies in making the connection between the flashy and the mundane.
One of Pande’s guest speakers, Sharad Apte, is an audiophile of the avian sort and told the class to slow down and “listen, listen, listen—every sound, listen.”
Apte speaks with the patient demeanor of a man used to waiting silently, microphone in hand, for a bird to sing its song. No less enthusiastic than Pande about conservation, Apte tells students about the ethics of recording bird song and minimizing human impact.
“Our mistakes cost very high because the life of every egg is important,” he says, suggesting students pick familiar field sites and return them frequently to watch for patterns and changes. “To do that you need a lot of study.”
Beyond the classroom, outside the college gate, runs Karve Road. Rickshaws, buses, two-wheelers and pedestrians dance between the lanes to the syncopated music of horns, engines and Bollywood tunes playing in passing cars. Trees marked with thick red and white stripes line the roadway, growing out of the concrete jungle. Looking up through the hazy smog, something flits among the branches. A desiccated leaf flutters to ground. No sign of a greenish warbler. But a sharp chirp from the next tree over mixes with the street sounds.