Observe from afar

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They travel for thousands of miles across the continent to find that comfortable resting place during the cold winter season. They rest, they breed, and they return once again to where they came from once the harsh winter there is over.

Most of these migratory birds come to Sri Lanka during September and October, and some come in August. Most of them leave in late March and April and some in early May. This year the World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) which was celebrated yesterday (14 May), centred on the theme, ‘Focus on Light Pollution’.

Artificial light is increasing globally by at least 2 per cent per year and it is known to adversely affect many bird species. Light pollution is a significant threat to migratory birds, causing disorientation when they fly at night, leading to collisions with buildings, perturbing their internal clocks, or interfering with their ability to undertake long-distance migrations. 

Solutions to light pollution are readily available with more cities in the world taking measures to dim building lights during migration phases in spring and autumn. Best practice guidelines are also being developed under the Convention on Migratory Species to address this growing issue and to ensure that action is taken globally to help birds migrate safely.

WMBD is a conservation initiative that brings awareness on conserving migratory birds and their habitats throughout the Western Hemisphere. Originated by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre, it is now coordinated by Environment for the Americas.

WMBD commemorated twice a year

“The WMBD is commemorated on two days every year that is on the second Saturday of the month of May and the second Saturday of the month of October. The second Saturday of May is not the appropriate day for Sri Lanka because by now all the migrants have left or maybe only the last few birds are remaining. Sri Lanka has only one summer migrant that is the Roseate Tern. So, for Sri Lanka the appropriate or relevant day is the October date. We all concentrate on the October date,” Environment Lawyer Dr. Jagath Gunawardana told Ceylon Today.

He said that migrants need more attention and more protection in Sri Lanka because all migrant birds are protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) as they enter the Sri Lanka. “When it comes to migrants, most of their habitats are destroyed and invaded and therefore, they can’t accommodate migrants anymore. So, we have to be very careful about this trend because if we go on destroying and degrading their habitats the migrants may not have places to survive during their stay in Sri Lanka. We have to be mindful of protecting the habitats and identifying the localities and then give them some degree of protection,” Dr. Gunawardana explained.

He added that the second aspect is that most people are not aware of the migrants that come to their home gardens. “So, there should be more awareness creation to give more interest and more studies are needed to ascertain or I should say more and more studies are needed to study their behaviour once they are in Sri Lanka; what types of habitats they prefer, what types of places they are usually found in, what problems they face in this country while they are here. All these things need more scientific research and this is one area where the average bird watcher can become a citizen scientist and do part of a research for birds found in their own home gardens or in their areas,” Dr Gunawardana explained. 

Most migrants – water birds

He said that if time and interest permits then the citizen scientists can embark on a small study. “A small knowledge of identifying the bird is all that is needed for them to get started in this kind of thing. If my home garden has migrant birds I can always see if it is a territorial bird, what it feeds on when they are in my garden, what their enemies are, and what the dangers it may be facing are, among others. Most of the migratory birds that come to Sri Lanka as migrants are water birds or those that are dependent on wetlands,” Dr. Gunawardana said.

He said so many of these wetlands are now being destroyed to pave way for various development activities and some are affected by environmental pollution among other threats, making it hard for a particular place to support a population of birds in that area for a period of time. “These are the things that we have to give due consideration and some of these people who think they are developing a place unknowingly or knowingly destroy it for the migrants. For example if you grow trees in a wetland habitat that may not be suitable for the migrants and the water birds, it may create a not so hospitable environment for the migratory birds” Dr. Gunawardana explained.

He added that sometimes tree planting has become a frenzy and this has added to the destruction of the wetland habitat. “I’m more worried about the habitats being destroyed and degraded, not only wetland habitats but also terrestrial habitats such as forests and scrublands, and the rest of these habitats may not look very promising but they are habitats for certain species of migratory birds. Grasslands, scrublands, and forest patches harbour one or more species of migrants, especially the wet zone forest patches, the wet zone wetlands, scrublands, and grasslands are getting destroyed both in the wet zone, the dry zone, and the hill country.” Dr. Gunawardana said.

Photography threat to birds

The use of chemicals that may encourage environmental pollution, he said. Agro chemicals, industrial chemicals, and other types of chemicals are destructive and destroy the habitats of birds. “Photography is a big threat to the birds but first and foremost, is the destruction and the converting of habitats into other types of places. When a large number of birds congregate some people want to get a flying shot so they disturb the birds and let them fly off. That will drive away the birds from that habitat,” Dr. Gunawardana explained.

He said some of these habitats are the best for the migratory birds when it comes to feeding grounds and their optimum habitat conditions. “If photographers start disturbing the birds, the birds will not find that place suitable anymore. So a bird watcher who is also a photographer or any photographer should keep the golden rule in mind that there should not be any disturbance to the birds when engaging in bird watching or photography. If a person wilfully disturbs the birds, he may be committing an offence under the FFPO as the circumstances may be,” Dr. Gunawardana said.

He added that this is the worst thing that can be done to migratory birds which has come all the way to have some peaceful weeks in Sri Lanka. “So, that is a very bad thing. All these photography institutes that hold award ceremonies for best wildlife picture should disqualify a photo if it is determined that the birds have been disturbed to get the shot. Maybe they can have a policy to not entertain any flying shot in which the birds are seen flying away from the photographer because it most definitely means the birds have been disturbed intentionally or by other means to capture that shot. They can also have some guidelines explaining how to take acceptable photographs,” Dr. Gunawardana noted.

Guidelines for photography

He said that there are certain groups that don’t accept photographs that have nests with the young and nests with eggs. They can take it a bit further and not allow photographs that show flying shots where the photographers can’t give a reasonable explanation. “I think there should be some guidelines saying if it is a flying shot it should be taken from afar,” Dr. Gunawardana explained

“Migration in general is a regular seasonal/annual movement (leaving and return) mainly in  the North-South direction and mainly in the Northern Hemisphere. According to latest research, certain bird species migrate along the East-West direction to a lesser extent. They leave their breeding grounds from autumn to winter and return in the next spring. They avoid the winter season during which food is scarce,” said Tharanga Herath who is an expert in ornithology-based tourism, a birdwatcher, and an artist.

He said birds use different ‘set routes’ along the North-South direction in migration around the world and migrants that visit Sri Lanka, fly along the Central Asian Flyway. “There are two major routes used by winter visitors. The Western Route (fly along the Western coast of India to enter the island from the Western-Northern coasts) and the Eastern Route (fly along the Eastern coast of India to enter the island from the Northern-Western coasts of the island),” Herath explained.

He said the Arctic Tern travels ‘Pole to Pole’ – the longest distance of 22,000kilometres – the Bar- tailed Godwit is known for the longest non-stop flight of 11,000kilometres, and the Bar-headed Goose flies at the highest altitude of 6,500 metres (21500 feet) over the Himalayas.

“There are about 220 purely migrant species, including over 70 vagrants. There are no passage migrants. These migratory birds are threatened due to habitat loss, that includes habitat depletion, habitat degradation and alteration, and colliding with man- made buildings and structures,” Herath said.

Themes of WMBD since 2000 up to 2022

2000: Focus on the Falcon

2001: Taste of the Tropics

2002: Exploring Habitats

2003: Catalysts for Conservation

2004: Conserving Colonial Birds

2005: Collisions

2006: The Boreal Forest

2007: Birds in a Changing Climate

2008: Tundra to Tropics

2009: Celebrate Birds in Culture

2010: Power of Partnerships

2011: Go Wild, Go Birding

2012: Connecting People to Bird Conservation

2013: Life Cycle of Migratory Birds

2014: Why Birds Matter

2015: Restore Habitat, Restore Birds

2016: Spread Your Wings for Bird Conservation

2017: Stopover Sites

2018: Year of the Bird

2019: Protect Birds: Be the Solution to Plastic Pollution

2020: Birds Connect Our World

2021: Sing, Fly, Soar – Like a Bird!

2022: Light Pollution

By Risidra Mendis