Kerala’s first bird atlas: Where citizen meets science, thanks to technology

Navya PK August 16, 2016 6 min

Binoculars in hand, C Sashi Kumar and Rajeevan P C pick a small lane adjacent the main road that seemed promising – at the start of the lane was a short stretch of bright green wilderness. In the lane, Rajeevan starts peering through his binoculars into any greenery in the fully residential area. Their bird count has started in this grid in Kannur district in north Kerala.

It does not seem like the ideal location for bird spotting – big houses with paved courtyards line the lane. But a minute into the walk, and Rajeevan starts spouting out the names of bird species one after the other, and Sashi Kumar jots it down in his pocket book. For someone new to bird watching, it could be confusing, for hardly any birds are seen. But Rajeevan and Sashi Kumar, both expert birders, can tell a species by its call. Sashi Kumar is a prominent ornithologist, and Rajeevan works at a gas agency.

They are now part of a huge effort across the state – an ambitious project to develop ‘Kerala Bird Atlas’. The citizen science project will map birds in Kerala over the next few years. It can also serve as an “indicator to changing ecological conditions,” as birds are the first to be affected by such changes.

Citizen science projects a.k.a networked science uses crowd-sourced data to further research. The trend of tapping into crowd sourced information is well established in the computing world, mostly in the US and other advanced nations. This, however, is new to India.

Public participation in science has grown because of availability of newer tools including open source hardware, networked sensors, 3D printers and the internet which allows researchers to collect data from volunteers across the world.

This time around, the birders also have some nifty tech tools at their disposal— ranging from an app that helps them verify data to mapping software on their mobile phones.

This is the first time in India that birds in an entire state are being mapped. The only similar effort was in Mysore city couple of years back, which in fact became the inspiration for Kerala birders. “In our annual birders’ meet last year, we said, why not do the same here too,” says Roshnath Ramesh, PhD scholar in ornithology, and district coordinator for the project in Kannur along with Sashi Kumar. Kerala has a strong community of birders who are connected through online platforms.

The project is on in seven districts now, and hundreds of people are participating. Birders in two districts – Thrissur and Alappuzha – already completed their projects over the past year, and have created distribution maps for every bird species they spotted in their districts. The whole project is to be completed in 2020, and then bird maps will be made for the entire state.

Sashi Kumar (left) and Rajeevan birding at a residential area.
Sashi Kumar (left) and Rajeevan birding at a residential area.

The idea is to create a baseline data of birds in the state – currently there are only estimations, and no scientific data. The survey will be repeated after 5-10 years, which will show any change in patterns, and thus help conservation efforts. “If a wetland is destroyed by the time of our next survey, and a bird species disappears from there, we can tell that the species was gone due to loss of the wetland. That is, we can find whether a bird has disappeared from a habitat, and why,” says Harikumar Mannar, Alappuzha district coordinator. Along with bird lists, birders also note wetlands and invasive plant species in the grids.

In the walks, experts like Sashi Kumar accompany amateurs when needed. Most participants are amateurs from different backgrounds – students, engineers, photographers etc. In Kannur, only some 20 out of the 60 plus birders are experts. Overall, 264 ‘sub-cells’ – grids measuring 1.1X1.1 sq km each – are to be surveyed here. In the state overall, 3000 grids have to be surveyed. Progress of the survey can be seen here; pink grids are the ones already done.

In their residential site, Sashi Kumar and Rajeevan identify 13 species in their first 15-minute walk alone. Each grid should be surveyed four times, of 15 minutes each; and lists should be made for all four walks. They navigate the grid using GPX Viewer, an app that can be used to view map routes. Birders with Android phones have the option of using Locus Free app. All birders in the state are given geospatial files that they can open and view in these two apps; these show the birders their location with respect to their grid when offline too.

Noting the end of the first walk and start of the new one, they go further down the lane. Here are couple of marshes and worn down houses that seem abandoned – ideal spots for birds.
Peering through binoculars in residential areas is not always easy, smiles Sashi Kumar: “We always get questions about what we are doing.” Rajeevan recalled a time when he was observing a barbet through binoculars near a lake in a forested area. “A woman was washing clothes nearby, and I hadn’t noticed. After a while she asked me what I was staring at. What would she know if I told her I was looking at a barbet!” he laughs. Birders in the project now carry ID cards.

Sashi Kumar will enter his bird lists at ebird.org, a website that verifies and accepts bird watch data from across the world. There is also an ebird app. Birders should enter details like duration of birding, party size etc., and then make a bird checklist by entering species name, numbers spotted etc.

Ebird was launched by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society in US in 2002, and is now a major resource for scientists and conservationists. It became popular in India in the last 2-3 years.

The site maintains data quality through its automated filters, developed based on previous entries. If any entered record seems dubious – like sighting of a rare bird, or in unusually high numbers or out of season – the filters flag it. Ebird has a global network of volunteers who review flagged records.

Sashi Kumar says that bird numbers are less now, and that the numbers will be high during breeding season. But this season – July to September – was picked for the project as it is the state’s ‘wet season’, when native birds are found more often. ‘Dry season’, when migrant birds are seen, is from January to March. Survey is done for 60 days each, during both seasons.

For the project, the entire state was divided into cells of 6.6X6.6 sq km, which were again divided into four quadrants. From each quadrant, one sub-cell of 1.1X1.1 sq km was selected using random series generated by websites like Random.org.

After the residential area, Sashi Kumar and Rajeevan pick the adjoining, more interesting grid – the GPX map shows a water body. Water body would mean lot more birds, and this one turned out to be a paddy field. Herons hop around in the fields, lone birds – shiny-blue, yellow – sit on nearby tree branches, and groups of birds fly to the fields and back.

Binoculars show three little grey birds huddling together on an electric wire in the middle of the field. The one in the middle seems to be rearing forward. These are Ashy Woodswallows, says Sashi Kumar. “They sit close together, and catch insects in the air.” As evening sets in, more birds moved to the wooded area behind the paddy fields calling it a day, and so did the birders.


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