Spotting the Amur Falcon on its migratory journey

Ornithologist Devvratsinh Mori at the Amur Falcon Watch, which took place from 26-28 April in Gujarat.  (Courtesy: Sunil Kini)
Ornithologist Devvratsinh Mori at the Amur Falcon Watch, which took place from 26-28 April in Gujarat. (Courtesy: Sunil Kini)


The Amur Falcon Watch in Gujarat was the first systematic count of the birds entering India during their reverse migration

On the morning of 26 April, Manisha Rajput and four volunteers reached Nait village in Gujarat, walking to a field on the edge of a coastal cliff. They lay on beds placed there, and stared at the sky. As the day warmed, Rajput spotted three fast-moving objects. These were Amur falcon entering the Indian airspace after an overnight flight crossing the Indian Ocean from Somalia. Had she not been looking for them, Rajput would not have spotted the superfast birds.

Rajput was among 30 other birdwatchers at the first Amur Falcon Watch (26-28 April), a citizen science event organised by the Bird Conservation Society with support from the Gujarat forest department to count the number of Amurs passing over the Saurashtra coast. Teams of two or four participants took to their beds close to the sea in 13 locations spread over 100km in Amreli and Bhavnagar districts in Gujarat.

“It was a coordinated activity, quite historical," says Suresh Kumar, scientist at Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, who has been studying the falcon’s migration since 2016. “Till now this systematic count of Amur falcons passing through has not been done anywhere else."

Also read: When hunters turn protectors: The story of the Amur Falcon

Every year Amur falcons undertake one of the longest bird migrations, a mammoth journey of over 20,000km. Beginning their journey around September in the Russian far-east, they come down to the Indian subcontinent through East Asia, fly over the Bay of Bengal before cutting through the Deccan region and crossing the Indian Ocean to enter East Africa and fly down to South Africa, summering in the southern hemisphere before flying back on a near parallel route. On their way back, the Amurs go up to the Horn of Africa, from where they skirt the Arabian peninsula, and fly past Pakistan before cutting into Gujarat and heading straight to Madhya Pradesh, over the Gangetic plains to the North-East again and upwards. They make an elliptical migration.

From the 15 falcons Kumar had tagged with satellite transmitters between 2016-18, it became apparent that the Amurs passed through Gujarat on their return migration. The Bird Conservation Society has been recording the Amurs’ flight points and their numbers for the past three years. “This told us that the maximum numbers of these birds fly by between 15 April and 15 May each year in this area," explains Devvratsinh Mori, ornithologist at Ahmedabad University and executive member of the society.

The Amur Falcon, which passes through 23 countries during its annual migration.
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The Amur Falcon, which passes through 23 countries during its annual migration. (Courtesy: Devvratsinh Mori)

The incredible aspect of the Amurs’ migration is the oceanic crossings they undertake. Kumar believes they use the wind’s assistance. During the Indian summer, it is the westerly currents that assists the birds. “The Amurs are smart enough to track these systems and are tailing them to glide into India," says Kumar. “Our tracking data supports this theory." Mori seconds this. He thinks they are less energetic on their return journey and make use of the winds to ease their effort. “When the wind speed is more, the falcon numbers increase in that direction," he says. Most of the birds the participants spotted were in flight. Only a few landed in trees or in intertidal areas where the tide was low.

To avoid a repeat recording of the same birds as far as possible, all 13 teams were asked to simultaneously observe the sky for the first 20 minutes of every hour between 10am and 6pm. This also increased the detection rates of the birds. In total, 150 birds were seen.

The Amurs pass through 23 countries. “This is really amazing as these birds connect lots of people and cultures," says Viral Joshi, programme coordinator of the event.

Vrushal Pendharkar is a Mumbai-based environment journalist.

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