Migratory birds found in Bhagalpur
An estimated 40% of all the known bird species migrate using nine well know migratory flyways Image Credit: Supplied

It was autumn of 1988, when I visited the Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan, India, famously known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. A small town put on the global conservation map by sheer diversity and congregation of winged visitors. On my first trip I was excited to get a glimpse of the Siberian Cranes. Which I did. For years the Siberian Cranes remained the star attraction.

These tall majestically white birds visited the sanctuary with religious regularity. Arriving in the Sanctuary without fail, year after year. So did the tourists from all around the world to see them. In the process they added to the local economy in a big way.

Unfortunately, their numbers started dwindling by late 1980s. Every autumn the numbers that returned to winter were smaller than the previous years. Sadly, the last pair arrived in 2001-2002. An unfortunate end to an enigmatic migratory species and its remarkable migration.

With that, the Sanctuary lost one of its most valuable visitors. Believed to be hunted along their migratory route between Arctic Siberia to wintering grounds in India, the end of Siberian crane is symbolic of the threats migratory birds are exposed to. It is the same year when, I migrated to the UAE from India to continue my work on migratory birds in the country.

Recognising these threats, twice every year, on May 14 and October 9, the World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) is celebrated under the UNEP Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and the African-Eurasian Waterbirds Agreement (AEWA). A global event to raise awareness and celebrate amazing migratory journeys. To highlight the challenges, they face.

This year’s theme is “Dim the Lights for Birds at Night!" is a recognition of growing threat of light pollution to migratory birds across the globe. Growing globally at a rate of 2 percent every year, artificial light disorients migratory birds, leading to collision with high rise building. Killing millions of birds each year globally.

Migration a compulsion

To migrate or not to migrate is what birds contemplate every season, given the threats they face during migration. Unfortunately, they don’t have much of an option. Come winter, the Arctic and most of the northern breeding grounds of millions of migratory birds get frozen.

With no or limited food and an extremely inhospitable weather looming ahead, its fight or flight. The chances of survival are as slim as looking for a needle in a haystack.

To undertake journeys which are arduous as well as hazardous is not easy. Vulnerable to hunting, predation, electrocution, on one hand and foreseeable impact of starvation, exhaustions and adverse weather conditions on the other hand, the odds are stacked against them. Still the probability of survival on migration is higher than staying back. This is what pushes them to migrate.

As a result, system of migration has evolved in the animal kingdom. More elaborate in birds than any other group. Fish, butterflies, bats, turtles, and some large mammals are known to migrate, however birds are true connoisseur. From the point of view of sheer distance, they cover annually, bird migration is nothing short of nature’s marvel.

An estimated 40% of all the known bird species migrate using nine well know migratory flyways. The Arctic Tern, weighing around 100 g is the longest migratory species covering over 80,000 km in circumpolar navigation annually, between Arctic and Antarctic. In another epic migration, the Bar-tailed Godwit, flies non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand in 11 days covering nearly 12000 km.

The Bar-headed Goose, one of the highest fliers in the world, reaches an altitude of nearly 30000 ft to fly over Mount Everest. I was lucky enough to hold this species and satellite tag it. The work done almost 20 years ago with my other colleagues, was the first tracking of this species in the world and led BBC to include our work its “Incredible Journey Series”.

At the high altitudes of Himalayas, oxygen availability is one third of what is at the sea level. Where mountaineers gasp for every single breath, these birds effortlessly fly across. Modified muscle fiber structure and changes in physiology allow them to bind oxygen more efficiently. An incredible adaptation to overcome adversity.

UAE, bird migration and technology

UAE is an important hub for migratory birds. An estimated 3 million shore birds alone migrate into UAE. Coming from their breeding areas in Russia, Europe and Central Asia, migratory birds find safe refuges across the length and breadth of the UAE’s landscape. No wonder nearly 70% of over 460 bird species recorded in the country are migratory.

Species such as terns come to the UAE during hot summer months to breed. As I write this piece thousands of these birds have started arriving on offshore islands off Abu Dhabi, to breed.

Advances in tracking technology over the last two decades has revolutionised our understanding of bird migrations. At the heart of this is the miniaturisation of satellite tags. With smallest satellite tags weighing as less as 2g, scientists can now track birds as small as 100-125 g.

As one of the three biggest users of this technology for animal tracking globally, UAE is really at the forefront of this. Several hundred of these small but expensive satellite tags are fitted annually on migratory birds. Providing fascinating and novel information.

Work on houbara, by the International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC) and on several other migratory birds, from flamingos to eagles and falcons by the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi have been seminal.

The Sooty Falcon which weighs less than 400 g migrates all the way from Madagascar to breed on small islands in the western region of Abu Dhabi. Not much was known about this species until we tagged one in 2008. In the first ever tracking of the species globally, the backpacked satellite tag provided information on every twist and turn it made, as it journeyed from Abu Dhabi to Madagascar, covering nearly 6000 km in 13 days.

Results, published in a peer reviewed international journal, highlighted the threats it faces. Both, along its migratory route and in breeding and non-breeding areas. Tracking of these and several other species from the UAE, some for the very first time is helping us identify threats as well as important sites for protection. In the UAE and beyond, all along their migratory routes.

Challenges create opportunities

Unfortunately, migratory birds continue to be persecuted. Illegal killing of birds in the Mediterranean region alone is estimated at nearly 25 million, according to a study by BirdLife International. Also, every year millions of birds are believed to be electrocuted from unsafe powerlines.

Migratory birds need good science, concerted actions, and good champions. In Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, we have one. His support in 2008 led to the creation of the MBZ Species Conservation Fund, a philanthropic endowment helping species conservation worldwide.

In 2018, his support led to the establishment of the Mohammed Bin Zayed Raptor Conservation Fund, to protect migratory birds of prey. We need more such champions and commitments to save migratory birds.

Philanthropy for conservation is not new to the UAE. Since 2009, Abu Dhabi has been hosting the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) office. This massive support is helping conservation of 93 species of migratory raptors in over 130 countries.

Migratory birds connect countries, continents, and people. They add to the local biodiversity and contribute to the local economy through ecotourism. Their arrival enriches our landscapes and inspire us all.

From artist to writers and from poets to politicians. Sight of flamingos against the backdrop of Abu Dhabi or Dubai skyline adds beauty to our city landscapes. We must connect with nature to celebrate their songs, amazing journeys, and sheer tenacity.

I feel blessed to have tracked some of the most amazing bird migrations in over 30 years of my professional journey.

From falcons to flamingos and Bar-headed Goose. Overcoming challenges on the way, as they across some of the most intimidating landscapes, from deserts to oceans to the highest mountain, across Africa and Asia and Europe. This has been immensely satisfying. In doing so I have learnt to fly and soar like them, at least in spirit.

It’s time to commit and support migratory bird conservation, within country and beyond borders, of which they are a true embodiment.

In celebration of the WMBD 2022, let us also pledge to dim or turn off any unnecessary lights at night. To allow them safe passage as they migrate and connect countries and continents. To enjoy the diversity, colour and melody they add to our environs!

Dr. Salim Javed works at the Terrestrial Assessment & Conservation, Terrestrial & Marine Biodiversity, Abu Dhabi