Bird-counting in Nepal made easy

Spotted owlets. Photo: AARATI NEPALI.

Nepal has more than 889 species of birds, and counting them accurately is a difficult process. Now, a new app will help crowdsource the annual bird census.

Launched this week, the छिमेकी चरा (Neighbourhood Birds) app is designed by the nature group Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) to involve the public in its annual avian census which was previously done only by professional ornithologists during the winter migration season.

The census would also be restricted to wetland areas and protected forests, but with the app birds in villages and urban areas can now also be included.

“Nearly 1,000 volunteers and partners from 64 districts across Nepal have already downloaded the app,” says Aarati Nepali, the project’s program co-ordinator. “For half-an-hour on Saturdays, they will use the app to identify the birds in their vicinity and record their numbers and species.”

Nepali says the app is designed to accurately count birds that live and fly near human settlements, and could include the common sparrow, pigeon, barn swallow (गौंथली), doves (ढुकुर), ruddy shelduck (चखेवा), magpie, crow and owl.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology developed the ‘Great Backyard Bird Count’ project in 1998 which was the first online bird-counting program. It was later expanded world-wide into an effective method to collect information about bird sightings.

In Nepal, counting bird species and their numbers began in 1987, simultaneously with other parts of Asia, under the initiative of Wetlands International. In 2012 and 2013, BCN organised bird count outings and included amateur ornithologists as well.

“Bird-watching is a small community,” explains Niraj Dahal of BCN. “This app will expand that. We already spend a lot of time online and on-screen, and through the app we can bring together conservation helpers and ‘citizen scientists’ who can help in bird counting.”

Nepal, ranks 25th in the world and 11th in Asia in terms of avian biodiversity. It has nearly as many bird species as the continental United States in a much smaller area — and makes up 8% of the world’s total bird species. Most of these species are found in the Koshi Tappu Nature Reserve, Chitwan, Bardia and in wetland areas of the Tarai.

Of the species found, 389 are indigenous birds, and 45 seasonally migrate to Nepal. Another 300 or more are migratory species that transit through Nepal in their east-west or north-south migrations from Siberia to Africa, Sri Lanka and Indonesia in the northern hemisphere winter.

The reasons for this diversity are three-fold. Nepal has a great altitude variation and is in the boundary between the eco-biological domains of the Paleo-arctic realm to the north (Tibet, Siberia) and the Indo-Malayan realm to the south (India, south-east Asia).

The country also lies smack along an east-west Himalayan divide of which the Kali Gandaki Valley forms a distinct avian boundary. Climate diversity and altitude variation from the wetlands of Kosi Tappu, barely 90 metres above sea level, to Himalayan peaks above 8,000 metres makes the rich birdlife possible.

Bird Life International has identified 37 Important Bird Areas in Nepal, and although nearly 27% of Nepal’s land area is protected, a high proportion for a developing country, only 17 bird conservation areas have effective protection activities.

Among the species found in Nepal, 168 are on the endangered list while eight have been declared extinct. This year’s census across Nepal’s wetlands and national parts showed a decline in the number and species count for water birds, a trend in recent years, although a few rarely sighted migratory species were seen.

BCN’s Dahal says the bird app was launched in February to track the return of migratory species. There will be another census in six months to include summer migrants as well.

A tutorial has been uploaded on YouTube and volunteers can record information in their devices even without the internet and add species not seen in the list as new species.

The record is then processed and BCN will publish a map showing the areas where certain bird species are prevalent. So far, the app is compatible only in android phones, but a version for the iOS is also being developed.

Says Arend van Riessen of the Chimeki Chara project: “In the Netherlands, birds are counted based on their street numbers. We cannot do the same here, but perhaps in the future we can reach that level.”

Translated from the original by Aria Parasai.