First-ever Himalayan bird count kicks off

A photo of an Eurasian Hobby taken in Ladakh during the first Himalayan bird count, on May 14, 2022. PHOTO: WILDLIFE CONSERVATION AND BIRDS CLUB OF LADAKH
A photo of an Eurasian Sparrowhawk taken in Ladakh as part of the bird count. The one-day event led to reported sightings of 607 species of Himalayan birds. PHOTO: WILDLIFE CONSERVATION AND BIRDS CLUB OF LADAKH

NEW DELHI - Home to an estimated 10 per cent of the world's bird species, the Himalayan region is widely described as a global avian diversity hot spot. Around eight per cent of the global avian species also breed here.

But this fragile habitat, which ranges from snow-capped mountains to lush green forests and grasslands, is under severe stress because of climate change and other human-induced threats such as infrastructure development.

On May 14, around 385 birdwatchers from India, Nepal and Bhutan joined forces for the first Himalayan Bird Count (HBC), in an effort to better understand the impact of these far-reaching changes on birds in the Himalayas and protect threatened habitats in this iconic mountain range than spans over nearly 2,500km.

"It will give us a glimpse of the status of birds across the Himalayas - an important indicator of the health of this fragile ecosystem on which millions of people depend," Dr Sahil Nijhawan, a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, one of the participating organisations in the HBC, said in a media statement.

The one-day bird count led to reported sightings of 607 of the 1,000-odd bird species estimated to be found in the entire Himalayan region. This exercise is expected to become an annual phenomenon and data generated from these counts will help keep a tab on shifting trends in Himalayan bird populations over the coming years.

The first edition of HBC follows a study published this month in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, according to which the population of approximately 48 per cent of global bird species are known or suspected to be undergoing a decline.

The study identified an unchecked human footprint on the natural world - leading to degradation and loss of natural habitats as well as direct over-exploitation of many species - as the key threat to avian biodiversity, along with climate change.

In the Himalayas, some vulnerable bird species include the critically endangered White-bellied Heron, which is found in its freshwater ecosystems and happens to be the most endangered heron species, as well as the near threatened Black-necked Crane that breeds on the Tibetan Plateau and certain parts of India and Bhutan.

Incorporating a varying range of latitudes and elevation, this fragile ecosystem is today threatened by rapid warming estimated to be three times faster than the global average. Given that temperature is a critical factor in the life cycle of birds, global warming poses a grave threat, said Ms Mittal Gala, programme manager at Bird Count India, a partner involved in the HBC.

Certain bird species in the Himalayas have been forced to shift their nesting places to higher altitudes as temperatures increase.

An analysis of sightings data on 39 common species in the Eastern Himalayas over a 13-year period indicated the birds had shifted to higher elevations. An October 2020 preprint of this study on bioRxiv cautioned that eastern Himalayan avian species were at "special risk" from rising global temperatures because of their heightened thermal sensitivity and have less habitable space as they move summit-wards, tracking the range of temperatures ideal for their survival.

Ms Mittal told The Straits Times that many iconic Himalayan species are "restricted in their range and are very vulnerable to both global climate change and local habitat changes".

A photo of an Eurasian Magpie taken in Ladakh, northern India, during the first Himalayan bird count, on May 14, 2022. PHOTO: WILDLIFE CONSERVATION AND BIRDS CLUB OF LADAKH

This includes the Western Tragopan, which is mostly arboreal but feeds on the ground and requires undisturbed montane forests with dense undergrowth to flourish. There is a general lack of data on whether this and many other Himalayan bird species are increasing, decreasing or stable.

"Land-use change (such as conversion of forests into agricultural lands and grazing pastures) is an immediate threat to the very fragile montane ecosystems on which these birds and other flora and fauna depend," added Ms Mittal.

In Bhutan, which includes flagship bird species such as the Rufous-necked Hornbill and Bhutan Laughingthrush, 24 birders documented 262 species during the one-day event.

Mr Tshering Tobgay, a research officer with the Thimphu-based Royal Society for Protection of Nature, another participating organisation in the HBC, said birds in Bhutan are especially threatened by increasingly fragmented forests because of human interference ,such as the construction of dams across the Himalayan region, and resource exploitation such as logging and collection of stones and sand from riversides.

He told ST he expects HBC to promote the importance of protecting birds in Bhutan as well showcase his country's bird diversity. "At a regional level, it indicates the collaborative approach of conserving birds beyond the borders," he added.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.