Until January 2013, my bird identification skills could have been classified as rudimentary at best, and I had steadily resisted learning about birds from my over-zealous partner. I assured him that my interest lay in herpetofauna, and since my natural-history skills were just average even with my favorite taxa, there was no way I was going to be able to learn about birds. However, I had just accepted a research position with Dr. Krithi Karanth at WCS-India, to document the bird and amphibian diversity in agro-production landscapes across Karnataka’s Western Ghats. The fieldwork was about to begin in just a month, and with it began my crazy preparations to become reasonably competent in identifying Western Ghats’ birds – not just visually, but also by their calls and songs.
The first day of the next 16 months began in a coffee estate near Mallandur, in Chikamagalur. Our team of four set out at dawn to start the first leg of bird data collection, and in an hour of sampling, we had recorded around 33 species of birds. I was secretly thrilled that I was able to recognise the song of the Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, the low frequency whistling of the Grey-fronted Green Pigeon and the shrieks of the Malabar Parakeets. I refused to acknowledge this sudden interest in birds for a while, but by the time summer came, I remember telling my partner “it feels so odd to not hear the Greenish Warblers anymore; I think I miss them.”
On that first morning of birding, we also happened to come across two mixed hunting flocks. The first was a group of Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, Indian Yellow Tits, Western-crowned Leaf Warblers, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes, Orange Minivets and a Bronzed Drongo or two. Most of these are tiny birds that flit incessantly at the very highest canopy full of leaves. It was quite demoralising as a beginner, to raise my binoculars way up to spot these birds, only to realise that they appear as miniature black silhouettes that I couldn’t keep in view for more than a second. I quickly learnt though, that most of these species can be identified just by their behaviour. The second mixed hunting flock we saw that day was mid-canopy bark-gleaners (species that feed on insects that live on tree trunks) comprising mostly of woodpeckers. Within seven minutes, we had seen Greater Flamebacks, Common Flamebacks and Black-rumped Flamebacks, all in one flock. Added to this, a Rufous Woodpecker went by just a minute later. Ever since that day, watching mix-hunting flocks became the most exciting part of bird sampling.
Over the next few months, we recorded around 170 species of birds in coffee plantations, of which 12 were endemic to the Western Ghats. As we moved from one place to another, we also began to notice that coffee plantations that have more native tree density also had higher bird species richness. Unfortunately, some planters are choosing to replace their native shade with Silver Oak trees since they are fast-growing and of high economic value for their timber. While some birds like flowerpeckers, sunbirds and bulbuls seem to be able to adapt to this, many others will lose out if native shade is replaced majorly with Silver Oaks. Since only 9% of the Western Ghats falls under the protected area network, coffee plantations and other agroforests can actually do much to provide secondary habitats for bird diversity. This is where management decisions made by individual planters can play a major role in biodiversity conservation.
In those 16 months of fieldwork, we travelled to a new town or village almost every three days, often on bikes with 4 months of luggage on our backs. We surveyed extensively for birds and frogs in coffee, areca and rubber plantations. We stayed in some of the shadiest hotels imaginable and remained wet for 3 months straight during the monsoon. The group’s temper was often short, and patience was becoming an unknown virtue. But when I look back, the knowledge I gained about this landscape, its birds and amphibians is immense. There is also a sense of gratification every time I look at the soft -board on the office wall. For pinned-up there, is a map of Karnataka with nearly 190 dots – one for every plantation we surveyed – and these dots cover all seven districts of the Western Ghats, from Dakshin Kannada and Coorg all the way up to Uttara Kannada, an amazing 30,000 sq.km area!
Karanth KK, Sankararaman V, Dalvi S, Srivathsa A, Parameshwaran R, Sharma S, Robbins P, Chhatre A. In Review. Producing diversity: Agro-forests sustain Avian richness and abundance in Agro-forests of India’s Western Ghats. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, section Conservation
Link to the published paper and the full list of bird species: