The day of the birdwatchers

For an avid birdwatcher, the annual migration of birds from cold Siberia to warmer climes has all the ingredients of a of a high-tension drama."It's exciting," says a wide-eyed Iqbak Mullik, director of Shrishti, a NGO which espouses the avian cause. Shrishti organises bird counts across the country. It has 7 regional coordinators stationed in different states. Armed with binoculars, they gear up for action every January.

"But counting birds is a scientific task and involves methodology. It's not just a head count," explains Mullick. "Bird counting is vital, for it tells us about the health of the wetlands and whether these areas have deteriorated because of pollution and environmental degradation."

Birds dependent on the wetlands -- whether birds of prey, migratory or resident -- are all counted. Shrishti ropes in student volunteers and local people along with experts. Altogether, 130,000 birds were counted 1992-93 under the coordination of Shrishti groups in North India. Wetlands which attract more than 200,000 birds are called Ramsar sites and are deemed wetlands of international importance. Asia has 69 such sites, 10 of them located in India.

Apart from bird counting, Shrishti also organises workshops -- a recent one focused on the identification of birds -- and lends its expertise to bird aficionados across the country. The data collected by Shrishthi is sent to the Asian Wetland Bureau in Malaysia. This organisation was founded in 1987 under the aegis of the International Waterfowl Wetland Research Bureau at Gloucester in England.

AWB analyses bird data and uses it to study the ecology of the wetlands. It has identified 40 key sites for migratory water birds in East Asia and provides assistance for their protection. The Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History at Coimbatore is involved in the entire gamut of avian research. It watches over endangered species such as Siberian cranes and Floricans.

The Centre conducts detailed studies on the breeding habits of birds and plans to create a national database on Indian avifauna.The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) is an apex body which conducts and guides research projects and publishes material relating to birds. BNHS also counts birds and has been monitoring Bharatpur's ecology. The Wildlife Institute, Dehradun, adopts a holistic approach and looks at birds in relation to their habitat. It is currently involved in a study on the effect of forest plantations on bird ecology at the Borivli sanctuary. Kalpavriksh, a Delhi-based NGO, conducts a regular bird count at Sultanpur in Haryana.