Birdwatching, or birding, as it is referred to, seems to have become a very popular pastime in Bangalore. In this context, it's interesting to find out just how it's organized and carried out in the city...and I decided to talk to several people who've had more than thirty years of experience in this activity
A team at the HSBC Bird Race. Pic: Deepa Mohan.
There are no "professional" ornithologists, as far as I can gather, in the city. Most of the experienced birders of Bangalore are those who pursue birding as a weekend or holiday activity. Their professions might or might not be allied to the study of the world of Nature..and in fact, very often become a hindrance to the regular pursuit of birdwatching.
In spite of such obstacles, though, birdwatching seems to have found a firm and lasting foothold in Bangalore. Every experienced Bangalore birder that I talked to is unanimous about the origins of birding as a regular activity. "This was made possible by the settling of two great individuals in the city: Dr Joseph George from Dehradun, and then, Zafar Futehally from Mumbai," states Dr S Subramanya. The Birdwatchers' Field Club of Bangalore (BWFC), was set up shortly thereafter.
Postcards used to communicate meeting details. Pic courtesy: L Shyamal.
In those days before the Internet, communication between the members of the Club was through postcards, which Dr Joseph George, and later, U Harish Kumar,, used to send out. Mr L Shyamal, who has made outstanding contributions on Wikipaedia on the subject of birds, says that people would exchange postcards to share information
Another group, the Merlin Nature Club, was also formed by people like J N Prasad and Mr T S Srinivas, and was registered with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) under the Nature Clubs Movement of WWF India. S Karthikeyan, or Karthik as he is known, who is now the Chief Naturalist, Jungle Lodges and Resorts Ltd, was then with WWF, organized regular nature-related film shows "I organized two film shows a month, at the Raman Institute, and at the Institute of Astrophysics," he mentions. "I was doing this for fourteen years, almost without a break. There was always a good turnout, of between fifty to eighty people Though meant for the members of WWF, anyone who saw the newspaper announcement could attend."
In those days, travelling to different birding locations in Bangalore was not the headache-inducing exercise it is today....plus, face-to-face was the only way the birders could gather, before conference calls and group chat.
Dr S Subrahmanya, or Subbu as he is affectionately known in birding circles, also talks about how the field trips became regular outings on the 4th Sunday of every month. Members would meet at Lalbagh, and then make trips to destinations such as Nandi Hills.
One of the important milestones for the Birdwatchers' Field Club was the compilation of the official Annotated Checklist of the birds of Bangalore, with sponsorhip from Bikram Grewal, a noted naturalist.. The very first bird list was made by Dr Joseph George, and released by Dr Salim Ali, in November 1977 (on his birthday), at a function at the Raman Research Institute,. Several lists followed the first Annotated Checklist; the latest one, says Subbu, is Shyamal's Wikipedia Checklist.
This official list had its origins in the many field trips and observations by the members of the BWFC. "Dr Chakrapani, Dr Subramanya and I had research interests, and we organized the Waterbird Census in co-ordination with the Forest Department," remarks Dr M B Krishna, or MBK, as he is called. "I used to count land birds for a period spanning 14.5 years..... at Lalbagh, Kalkere ( now Kalkere Reserve Forest) , and the Bangalore Military School on Hosur Road. These included counts at different levels...ground, shrubs, and tree canopies....and we also did about ten years of water bird counts," he says.
Courtesy: L Shyamal.
The Midwinter Waterfowl Census, that ran from 1987 to 1996, was an important development. To quote Subbu: "This laid the beginning for understanding our wetlands through birds and has formed the basis for shaping lake conservation movement in the city. We knew more about our waterbirds or the wetlands because of the census, and we set standards for rest of the country with respect to the quality of the data collected.
Meanwhile, an important change was also occurring in the way members would communicate with each other. As a post- doctoral student at IISc, MBK got his first email account in 1993. He realised the potential of email for communication, and started the "bngbirds" egroup, which MBK calls the "discussion group" The egroup specifically stated that it is only a communication medium, and is not the actual birders' group. Most birdwatchers in Bangalore now think that bngbirds is the name of the birding group...but it is the Birdwatchers' Field Club that is the organization, and bngbirds is only a mailing list.
Indeed, the outings of BWFC slowly became standardized to Hebbal Lake and Lalbagh. Why did this happen? "When introducing people to birding," says Karthik; "We did not need to take them to far-flung locations and show them rare birds. We could start them off with the common birds." And of course, the common birds were far more plentifully found earlier. "The bird population in Lalbagh is 1 to 2% of what there was, 30 years ago," rues MBK. "There's also been a sharp reduction in the number of species." For example, he says, earlier, on 70% of his visits, he would find the Common Iora in Lalbagh; today it is not found there at all.
Which brings us to the question...what have been the changes in birding over the decades, in Bangalore? "The number of birdwatchers, crows and common kites have increased...and the number of.birding areas has decreased!" says Prasad, joking about the reality of the situation. The green canopy in Bangalore, which sheltered so many birds, has been decimated over the decades.