Copious rain, cyclone bring in rare birds, excite local birdwatchers

After a significant bout of rain and a cyclone, Chennai’s birdwatchers have spotted rare species in the city. With more rain predicted for the city, they foresee a good birding season in 2021, with rare birds returning to the city limits.
Barred Buttonquail
Barred Buttonquail


During Cyclone Nivar, local birdwatchers took to their terraces to see the birds crossing the city owning to the shutdown restrictions. Pelagic birds, which are birds that prefer to take flight paths over the ocean, were spotted this year. 
“Personally, I saw the lesser and greater frigatebird, which are very rare in the city. When the eye of the storm passed, we tried to spot birds that are caught in the cyclone. Most of these birds are migratory, coming in from Sri Lanka and travelling through the Gulf of Mannar. The cyclone is the reason we were able to see them this year,” said Vikas Madhav, a local birdwatcher. 
The cyclone brought with it birds that were not typically seen within the city limits. Such is the case of the Amur Falcon, which was seen in Mylapore by Rama Neelamegam, a local birdwatcher and photographer. 
“Most of these birds have been seen either in Sholinganallur or Pulicat and not within the city. The Amur Falcon sighting was very rare because they take a flight path over the sea, particularly the Arabian Sea. This year, there were three sightings of the Amur Falcon across the city,” said Rama. 
Another rare sighting this year was the Blyth’s Swift, which is usually seen in Kerala or near the Western Ghats, which according to local birdwatchers might be a record first for the city. 
The heavy rain from the cyclone bodes well for the birding season to come, said Madhav. “In 2015, after the floods, we saw a lot of birds in 2016. I conducted a survey in Guindy National Park in 2016 and saw a lot of forest birds return that have not been in the city since the 80s. My prediction for 2021 would be that areas like IIT, Guindy National Park, and Madras Christian College will have good sightings. I’m hoping for the Malayan night heron, a rare bird that was seen once this year,” he said. 
However, these rains are a double-edged sword, said Rama. While the ecosystem transforms to that of a wetland, certain birds might depart owing to the destruction of their food source. “Many common birds feed on insects like grasshoppers, which will not be available if the grasslands flood. Another big problem is accessibility for birdwatchers – because while the birds are by the lake, the lake edge might be very slushy and difficult to traverse,” said Rama. Species like raptors and falcons, which are easier to spot over grasslands, might be more difficult to spot, they say.

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