Birders catch rare glimpse of seabirds in onshore regions of Gujarat - Hindustan Times
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Birders catch rare glimpse of seabirds in onshore regions of Gujarat

Jun 25, 2023 06:41 PM IST

Birdwatchers and enthusiasts have reported sightings of Pelagic birds, including species like shearwaters, petrels, storm petrels and terns in places not typically associated with their presence

Some unusual sightings have captivated birdwatchers in Gujarat as Pelagic birds, typically bound to coastal and offshore regions, were seen in inland areas.

Brown Noddy spotted at Balachadi beach, about 35 km from Jamnagar, Gujarat (Yashodhan Bhatia)
Brown Noddy spotted at Balachadi beach, about 35 km from Jamnagar, Gujarat (Yashodhan Bhatia)

Following the passage of Cyclone Biparjoy near Jakhau in Kutch on June 15, these oceanic avian species, typically confined to coastal and offshore regions, have captivated birdwatchers in Gujarat as they were observed venturing into inland areas.

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Birdwatchers and enthusiasts have reported sightings of Pelagic birds, including species like shearwaters, petrels, storm petrels and terns in places not typically associated with their presence. Their presence is believed to be a result of the cyclone’s powerful winds and turbulent weather conditions.

In places like Morbi, Jamnagar, Dwarka and other coastal regions of the state, such sightings are being reported by bird watchers for the past few days. At Nal Sarovar, a Ramsar site about 80 km from Ahmedabad, birders can be seen flocking the place to catch a glimpse of the sooty tern and other sea birds.

“Although uncommon, the presence of these birds is not something unexpected in the wake of a severe storm like Biparjoy. These Pelagic birds are adapted to forage in the open ocean, utilizing oceanic currents and winds to conserve energy for their flight. They may not be easily sighted because they are in offshore areas of Gujarat. As the cyclone approaches, it brings up food from the depths of the ocean, attracting the birds to forage in its vicinity. Due to the cyclone’s path and the natural orientation of the birds, they have been observed in offshore waters of Gujarat,” said R Suresh Kumar, scientist at Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun.

While the presence of these birds in coastal cities like Dwarka, Morbi and Jamnagar is natural, the Gulf of Khambhat provides a connection to Nalsarovar, a brackish water habitat, allowing the birds to extend their range, he added.

The Pelagic birds spend the majority of their lifespan in open seas far from the coast and many of these species nest on isolated islands and cliffs of northern Europe, Russia and the American continent, said Dishant Parasharya, an ornithologist and curator at Gujarat Science City, Ahmedabad.

“Recent sightings of Pelagic seabirds in Gujarat, including the sooty tern at Nalsarovar and brown noddy at Jamnagar or the Persian shearwater at Bhavnagar coast in the last few days, have sparked great curiosity among birdwatchers. These additions to the records are primarily attributed to the influence of cyclone Biparjoy and its aftermath. During the migration of these birds across the ocean, powerful cyclonic winds can redirect their course towards the land, making it challenging for them to remain in the open sea. However, it is important to note that these sightings do not represent new introductions to Gujarat’s bird checklist. Instead, they serve as a reaffirmation of their presence in the pelagic waters adjacent to the state, highlighting their significance in terms of high-sea conservation,” he added.

A study conducted by Swansea University and other institutes and published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in October last year, revealed that Pelagic seabirds in the Sea of Japan exhibit a fascinating behaviour of deliberately flying towards the eye of the storm to avoid being forced onto land.

Led by Professor Emily Shepard and Dr Emmanouil Lempidakis from the Department of Biosciences, the research focused on how shearwaters navigate tropical cyclones and storms in the Sea of Japan, known for its high cyclone activity.

Over the course of 11 years, the team tagged adult shearwaters and analysed their GPS tracks in relation to wind patterns. Surprisingly, the study found that some Pelagic seabirds deliberately fly towards the eye of the storm, a behaviour believed to help them avoid being forced onto land masses during turbulent weather conditions. By flying directly into the storm, the birds may reduce the risk of injury or death that could occur if they were pushed towards land, it said.

Before the storm hit the Gujarat coast, Porbandar witnessed daily sightings of the masked bobby for about a month before the storm, according to Esha Munshi, an associate curator at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. She says that while seabird is known in close proximity to the shore within a range of 0 to 5 nautical miles, others like the sooty terns, bridled terns, and arctic skuas, were seen in onshore areas only after the storm.

They are known for their affinity to the open sea and typically reside within 10 to 50 nautical miles of the coast, rarely venturing inland, said Munshi who is known for her extensive bird documentation with over 1,070 documented sightings in the Indian sub-continent, Munshi said.

“Three brown noddies have been sighted in Jamnagar in the aftermath of the cyclone. In Morbi, a red-billed tropic bird was rescued soon after cyclone Biparjoy and released on Friday. At Nalsarovar, there have been sightings of brown noddy, bridled tern, sooty tern and arctic skua. All these sightings are well documented with proper identification. Sooty terns have been spotted in a few other places including the coastal town of Dwarka and at Sachana Beach near Jamnagar. At Bhavnagar, there have been sightings of Persian shearwater and Arctic skua. The cyclone has offered a rare opportunity for bird enthusiasts to witness these pelagic species in onshore areas, providing an advantage for birders without the need to venture deep into the sea,” said Munshi.

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