Birdwatching along the Betwa: Abundance threatened by Developmental Activities, Sand Mining

Observations on wild birds made during a 10-day-long walk along the Betwa – part of Veditum’s Moving Upstream fellowship, from 11 to 20 January, 2019. The walk started near Orai in Uttar Pradesh and ended at Orccha in Madhya Pradesh. 

Coordinates: 25.810894, 79.404423 and 25.396116, 78.662907.

Vetravati: The bearer of reeds

Accounts from the Mahabharata say the name Betwa is short for ‘Vetravati’, meaning ‘The bearer of reeds’ (‘Vetra’ = Reed, Cane or Rattan in Sanskrit) [1]. It’s a special name because not many rivers are named after a biological feature, at least none that this writer recalls. The geological terrain that the river flows through, fed by rich deposits from the Vindhyas, Malwas and the Bundelkhand uplands, create ideal conditions for lush riverside vegetation. In the past, this vegetation, coupled with forests, would have provided a haven for wildlife and human settlers with their domestic animals.

While there isn’t much recorded documentation on the Betwa, historical accounts of habitats around the Yamuna, which the Betwa joins near Hamirpur in Uttar Pradesh, reveal a past filled with an incredible diversity of wildlife — from the mighty and endangered rhinoceros to the now presumed extinct pink-headed duck. [2] There are written accounts of hunts in the region (Central Provinces – including Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, and Bengal Province) by British officers and royalty. Tigers, now the face of wildlife conservation in the country,  were indiscriminately hunted in the region in the past. [3] Historical accounts of the gharial, another critically endangered species, are rare, but the Betwa has been described as part of the historical range of gharial. [4] 

A recent paper recorded 60 species of freshwater fish upstream of the stretch that we walked. [5] Though this is a high number, unless population viabilities and the broader river-faunal community are studied, it cannot be considered a proxy for a healthy river. A gharial survey, downstream of the stretch that we walked, revealed no signs of gharials and concluded that gharials are possibly extinct across the river, indicating that there is low conservation potential for reintroduction of the species. [6] 

There is a  severe lack of contemporary studies on wildlife in the region, especially in the broader human-environment context. [7] This is a concern, since there will be impacts from the Ken-Betwa River Link construction and dam breaches; an immediate fallout of the project is likely to be the spread of invasive species.

Notes on Avifauna

Our observations try to provide a baseline for bird species in the stretch walked, along with notes and commentary on aspects of ecology and biodiversity. The idea was to calculate abundances of birds, and assess community diversity, habitat characteristics along with an initial survey of threats. All the observations were recorded on the mobile application eBird.[8]  

Map of birding spots

Winter Migrant Bird Species

During our walk, we observed a healthy winter migrant community. But even species seen in good numbers and traditionally thriving in the region, face various threats: losing food sources, habitats, nesting places, being hunted, farming and pesticide usage.

The following Winter Migrant bird species were recorded during the survey (click on tabs for more):

  • Bar-headed Goose – Anser indicus
  • Greylag Goose – Anser
  • Knob-billed Duck – Sarkidiornis melanotos
  • Ruddy Shelduck (Brahminy Duck) – Tadorna ferruginea
  • Northern Shoveler – Spatula clypeata
  • Common Sandpiper – Actitis hypoleucos
  • Green Sandpiper – Tringa ochropus
  • Common Greenshank – Tringa nebularia
  • Wood Sandpiper – Tringa glareola
  • Common Redshank – Tringa totanus
  • Pallas’s Gull – Ichthyaetus
  • Osprey – Pandion haliaetus
  • Eurasian Griffon (Griffon Vulture) – Gyps fulvus
  • Pallid Harrier – Circus macrourus
  • Eurasian Kestrel (Common Kestrel) – Falco tinnunculus
  • Isabelline Shrike – Lanius isabellinus
  • Brown Shrike – Lanius cristatus
  • Grey-throated Martin (Plain Martin) – Riparia chinensis
  • Barn Swallow – Hirundo rustica
  • Hume’s Warbler – Phylloscopus humei
  • Common Chiffchaff – Phylloscopus collybita
  • Booted Warbler – Iduna caligata
  • Blyth’s Reed Warbler – Acrocephalus dumetorum
  • Lesser Whitethroat – Sylvia curruca
  • Bluethroat – Luscinia svecica
  • Red-breasted Flycatcher – Ficedula parva
  • Black Redstart – Phoenicurus ochruros
  • Blue Rock-Thrush – Monticola solitarius
  • Common/Stejneger’s Stonechat (Siberian/Stejneger’s Stonechat) – Saxicola maurus
  • Desert Wheatear – Oenanthe deserti
  • Rosy Starling – Pastor roseus
  • Grey Wagtail – Motacilla cinerea
  • Western Yellow Wagtail – Motacilla flava
  • White Wagtail – Motacilla alba

There were diverse communities of waterfowl in good numbers. However, the vicinity of the riverbank was completely denuded of trees in most places (see figure below). This, in combination with reduced water flow in later winter months of February, March and April and near constant human and cattle activity throughout the length of the river could be a big deterrent for continued habitat use of the waterfowl.

Denuded meander. Tree less riverside. Screenshot taken from Google Maps.

Upstream of Parichha dam seemed to be a preferred spot for roosting gulls, we counted more than 1000 gulls flying towards Parichha dam and beyond on successive evenings. Downstream of the dam though we barely saw any gulls. 

An earlier study of the reservoirs in winter, has shown that Parichha and Erach, the two dams we encountered, had the least number of gulls. [9] We suspect this could be because of the proximity of the dams to each other. If this is true, it underscores the need to conduct Cumulative Impact Assessment for all newly proposed projects such as dams and canals as part of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). 

Gulls have been seen eating trash and food offered by people when their preferred food source of fish becomes less abundant. We observed this behavior at a village called Dikholi, where festivities were held, and a large congregation of people offered salutations in the form of food to the river.

Key gull hain (author's attempt at humour using Punjabi): A lot more gulls were seen flying overhead towards Pariccha dam than we encountered on the river itself.

The only migratory raptors we saw were Osprey, Eurasian Kestrel and Pallid Harrier. Since they are known to have relatively small wintering territories, many more encounters were expected along the river stretch with potentially lots of roosting sites and food. They were encountered only thrice in the whole journey. This is concerning and points to the possibility of lack of both protection and food along the river.

The wader community (subspecies of waterfowl) seemed to be doing well in terms of diversity and encounter rate. However, in the last few years most of the exposed banks have been overrun by cucumber and melon farming, which could lead to a severe decline in the available habitat for breeding waterfowl. Species such as lapwings, terns and plovers need exposed and disturbance-free sandbanks to breed. While this seasonal farming practice offers small monetary benefits to the riverside population, many of whom are OBCs, SC and STs with limited earning opportunities, the impact on the birds could be catastrophic too. In such a delicate scenario, one needs to ensure that unsound science is not applied without humanitarian intervention to ensure that both the biodiversity and livelihoods thrive.

Traction for extraction: Unrestricted mechanized sand removal damages the shallow riverside habitats crucial for feeding and roosting of waders.

Many small winter migrant birds that depend on foliage for cover and insects for food (such as warblers), are known to be adversely affected by fertilizer and pesticide use. This could have been the possible factor for their limited presence in the Betwa basin. Conversations with farmers gave the general sense that more intensive farming was being undertaken along with higher pesticide use in recent decades.

Little brown jobless? Warblers such as this Chiffchaff face increasing depletion of natural cover and food sources.

Resident Bird Species

About a hundred species of resident birds were seen during the walk. The most common were expectedly habitat generalists such as rock pigeon, house sparrow, large-billed crow, house crow, spotted dove, oriental magpie robin and pied bushchat. 

Below is the complete list of the resident bird species encountered (click on tabs for more):

  • Lesser Whistling-Duck – Dendrocygna javanica
  • Indian Spot-billed Duck – Anas poecilorhyncha
  • Indian Peafowl – Pavo cristatus
  • Jungle Bush-Quail – Perdicula asiatica
  • Grey Francolin – Francolinus pondicerianus
  • Little Grebe – Tachybaptus ruficollis
  • Rock Pigeon (Blue Rock Pigeon) – Columba livia
  • Eurasian Collared-Dove – Streptopelia decaocto
  • Laughing Dove (Little Brown Dove) – Streptopelia senegalensis
  • Yellow-footed Pigeon (Yellow-footed Green-Pigeon) – Treron phoenicopterus
  • Greater Coucal – Centropus sinensis
  • Asian Koel – Eudynamys scolopaceus
  • Eurasian Moorhen – Gallinula chloropus
  • Eurasian Coot – Fulica atra
  • White-breasted Waterhen – Amaurornis phoenicurus
  • Sarus Crane – Antigone
  • Black-winged Stilt – Himantopus
  • River Lapwing – Vanellus duvaucelii
  • Red-wattled Lapwing – Vanellus indicus
  • Little Ringed Plover – Charadrius dubius
  • Bronze-winged Jacana – Metopidius indicus
  • Barred Buttonquail – Turnix suscitator
  • Small Pratincole – Glareola lactea
  • Black-bellied Tern – Sterna acuticauda
  • River Tern – Sterna aurantia
  • Asian Openbill – Anastomus oscitans
  • Woolly-necked Stork – Ciconia episcopus
  • Painted Stork – Mycteria leucocephala
  • Oriental Darter – Anhinga melanogaster
  • Little Cormorant – Microcarbo niger
  • Great Cormorant – Phalacrocorax carbo
  • Indian Cormorant (Indian Shag) – Phalacrocorax fuscicollis
  • Grey Heron – Ardea cinerea
  • Purple Heron – Ardea purpurea
  • Great Egret – Ardea alba
  • Intermediate Egret – Ardea intermedia
  • Little Egret – Egretta garzetta
  • Cattle Egret – Bubulcus ibis
  • Indian Pond-Heron – Ardeola grayii
  • Striated Heron (Little Heron) – Butorides striata
  • Black-crowned Night-Heron – Nycticorax
  • Black-headed Ibis – Threskiornis melanocephalus
  • Black-winged Kite (Black-shouldered Kite) – Elanus caeruleus
  • Egyptian Vulture – Neophron percnopterus
  • Oriental Honey-buzzard (Crested Honey Buzzard) – Pernis ptilorhynchus
  • Indian Vulture (Indian Long-billed Vulture) – Gyps indicus
  • Crested Serpent-Eagle – Spilornis cheela
  • Short-toed Snake-Eagle – Circaetus gallicus
  • White-eyed Buzzard – Butastur teesa
  • Shikra – Accipiter badius
  • Black Kite – Milvus migrans
  • Rock Eagle-Owl (Indian Eagle-Owl) – Bubo bengalensis
  • Spotted Owlet – Athene brama
  • Eurasian Hoopoe – Upupa epops
  • Indian Grey Hornbill – Ocyceros birostris
  • Common Kingfisher (Small Blue Kingfisher) – Alcedo atthis
  • White-throated Kingfisher – Halcyon smyrnensis
  • Pied Kingfisher – Ceryle rudis
  • Green Bee-eater – Merops orientalis
  • Indian Roller – Coracias benghalensis
  • Coppersmith Barbet – Psilopogon haemacephalus
  • Rose-ringed Parakeet – Psittacula krameri
  • Common Woodshrike – Tephrodornis pondicerianus
  • Common Iora – Aegithina tiphia
  • Small Minivet – Pericrocotus cinnamomeus
  • Long-tailed Shrike – Lanius schach
  • Black Drongo – Dicrurus macrocercus
  • Rufous Treepie – Dendrocitta vagabunda
  • House Crow – Corvus splendens
  • Large-billed Crow – Corvus macrorhynchos
  • Rufous-tailed Lark – Ammomanes phoenicura
  • Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark (Ashy-crowned Finch-Lark) – Eremopterix griseus
  • Greater Short-toed Lark – Calandrella brachydactyla
  • Crested Lark – Galerida cristata
  • Dusky Crag-Martin – Ptyonoprogne concolor
  • Wire-tailed Swallow – Hirundo smithii
  • Red-rumped Swallow – Cecropis daurica
  • Streak-throated Swallow – Petrochelidon fluvicola
  • Red-vented Bulbul – Pycnonotus cafer
  • White-eared Bulbul – Pycnonotus leucotis
  • Clamorous Reed Warbler (Indian Great Reed Warbler) – Acrocephalus stentoreus
  • Common Tailorbird – Orthotomus sutorius
  • Rufous-fronted Prinia – Prinia buchanani
  • Ashy Prinia – Prinia socialis
  • Plain Prinia – Prinia inornata
  • Yellow-eyed Babbler – Chrysomma sinense
  • Oriental White-eye – Zosterops palpebrosus
  • Common Babbler – Turdoides caudata
  • Large Grey Babbler – Turdoides malcolmi
  • Jungle Babbler – Turdoides striata
  • Indian Robin – Copsychus fulicatus
  • Oriental Magpie-Robin – Copsychus saularis
  • Pied Bushchat – Saxicola caprata
  • Indian Chat (Brown Rock Chat) – Cercomela fusca
  • Orange-headed Thrush – Geokichla citrina
  • Asian Pied Starling (Pied Myna) – Gracupica contra
  • Brahminy Starling – Sturnia pagodarum
  • Common Myna – Acridotheres tristis
  • Bank Myna – Acridotheres ginginianus
  • Purple Sunbird – Cinnyris asiaticus
  • White-browed Wagtail (Large Pied Wagtail) – Motacilla maderaspatensis
  • Paddyfield Pipit – Anthus rufulus
  • Long-billed Pipit – Anthus similis
  • Tree Pipit – Anthus trivialis
  • House Sparrow – Passer domesticus
  • Chestnut-shouldered Petronia (Yellow-throated Sparrow) – Gymnornis xanthocollis
  • Baya Weaver – Ploceus philippinus
  • Indian Silverbill (White-throated Munia) – Euodice malabarica

Among waterfowl, ducks were rarely seen, with the exception of the Indian spot-billed duck. This was surprising, as a scan of the region on satellite data shows the presence of many ponds and lakes in the vicinity of the river. Since dabbling ducks and teals have a plant-based diet during winter, and cultivation was readily available along the riversides, low encounter rates suggest other factors at play. Two possibilities could be: Hunting by the local population and workers of sand mines and increased use of pesticides. Both need to be investigated along with behavioral observations of the ducks to pin-point conclusions on their numbers and possible factors for decline.

In Stork Contrast: Painted storks (adults and juveniles) feeding from a nutrient rich runoff sewer near the river.

Storks such as the woolly-necked stork, painted stork, black-necked stork need a lot more nutrition compared to smaller birds. Due to mud and sand mining, important food sources such as crustaceans and amphibians are in decline, leading to depressed population of storks.

Mystics of the mist: Woolly-necked storks depend on wetlands almost entirely for food and farmlands can often not substitute as larder.

River stretches with mud banks and small islands had black-bellied terns. Since they are classified as ‘endangered’, pockets of the river where they may breed need to be identified and protected. Some estimates put the global population of these terns at only a few thousands, and their habitats are in danger of being completely decimated. If planned well, Betwa could step in as a stronghold in such a scenario. 

Though many species of raptors were encountered, the rate of encounter was extremely low, with most being sighted only once. This points to a possible lack of food availability, combined with the destruction of breeding spots, with deforestation being the most important factor. Continuous raptor monitoring across the length of the river, along with tactical reforesting and protection, could improve their numbers.

Ill-Eagle? A short-toed snake eagle on a denuded perch.

An important note on vultures is necessary here. The region has been traditionally known as a vulture hotspot; Orchha is home to many even now. But in most stretches, as in the rest of the country, vultures were hardly seen, even in places where there were opportunities for scavenging on dead cattle. 

Many rocky cliffs in the region have been levelled for mining of rocks and minerals. This has possibly impacted breeding areas of Indian vultures. Though diclofenac has been banned, it would be worthwhile to confirm if cattle are still being administered the same or not. Vultures thrived in the region in the past owing to ample forest cover, stone cliffs and enough animal carcasses to feed upon; if steps are taken to revive their population, Bundelkhand could once more emerge as a vulture safe space.

Vulture-Culture: The all-important migratory scavenger (Eurasian Griffon) was sighted only once.

Many forest species such as iora, woodshrike, hornbill and treepie were encountered only in very few patches — a consequence of loss of forests and related food from the immediate proximity of the river. The same was related anecdotally by people from the area that we spoke to. Lack of trees on islands has possibly affected setting up of heronries by many water birds such as herons, cormorants and storks. A well-planned restoration drive in a few patches of the river, where fish and macroinvertebrates can thrive again, could help these populations bounce back.

Breeding swallows such as streak-throated swallows require riverside cliffs to build their plastered nests. However, destruction of natural mud cliffs has seen them use man-made structures for nesting, many of which are not suitable. This could lead to a drastic decrease in their numbers. We encountered only two nest colonies of streak-throated swallows throughout our walk.

Swallowing their pride: Streak-throated swallow nest colony under a bridge Vs illustration of a natural nesting colony on cliffs (illustration by Gould).

Birds such as pied kingfisher, that use mud bank cavities as nesting sites also lose out on breeding habitats due to continuous extraction of the mud banks as seen in the picture below.

Who’s the king now? A lone pied kingfisher contemplates us while its breeding habitat moves further away from the river due to extraction.

Birding Future

The region is a relative void when it comes to bird related data. Periodic monitoring would help in establishing baselines. Involving the local population would make these efforts more sustainable. However, it is a challenging aspiration for the Bundelkhand region that suffers poor governance, low human development indices, low education levels and deep-rooted superstitions and beliefs. 

Small initiatives combined with efforts in related spheres such as inculcating natural history school curriculum, awareness activities with gram sabhas, integrating environmental aspects in livelihoods and raising the standard of living could show long-term results. Specifically, environmentally conscious governmental and non-governmental groups could plan activities such as an annual ‘Bundelkhand Bird Festival’, birdwatching clubs and setting up of vantage points, restoration of sand banks and native tree growth in patches close to the river, training of young women and men as naturalists, and introducing environment tourism initiatives in suitable villages. Worldwide, waterfowl surveys are some of the most popular and well-documented bird monitoring activities, and promotion of the same in Bundelkhand could see a lot of worldwide attention, along with the flow of resources into the region.

Chatting on Rocks: A Brown rock-chat on a Mughal Era monument reciting Ozymandias.

Anup is one of four fellows who went to walk the River Betwa, part of our first Moving Upstream fellowship in collaboration with Out of Eden Walk. To read more about our Moving Upstream project, click here. Anup tweets at @mint_floss

This piece can be re-published (CC BY-NC-SA) with a line mentioning “This was originally published on Veditum” and a link back to this page. In case of re-publishing, please alert [email protected].

One reply on “Birdwatching along the Betwa: Abundance threatened by Developmental Activities, Sand Mining

  • Chandran Avinjikat

    Extensive survey. Surprised to see so many varities of migrant avian population. Sad to see their habitat are being destroyed continuosly.

    Reply

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