2nd Floor, Sector 67,SAS Nagar My colleagues and I had come here, to the state of Nagaland, in search of what’s reputed to be the single greatest gathering of birds of prey on the planet. (And for good reason: A week later, looking out on Kaziranga’s grassy floodplain, I counted 59 Indian rhinoceroses in a single, wide sweep of my binoculars, as wild elephants, buffalo, wild hogs, and swamp deer grazed and Pallas’s Fish-Eagles soared overhead.) Photos: Seshadri KS Amur Falcons (Falco amurensis) are one of 69 species of raptors in India. In the case of Amur falcons, it was education that helped the birds fly safely through India, but there is no guarantee that the falcons will receive the same level of protection in other parts of their journey. A closer look with a pair of binoculars, revealed thousands of birds perched on trees all around us, in addition to those in the air. In Doyang, the Amur flacons were not poached for livelihood, but to be eaten as a local delicacy. Together they convinced the tribal elders that the falcons needed to be protected, and the elders agreed. In 2012, a Naga conservationist named Bano Haralu, along with several colleagues from Conservation India, confirmed rumors that Amur Falcons had begun to gather each night by the hundreds of thousands in densely packed roosts along the Doyang Reservoir, with many more in neighboring areas—very likely the bulk of the entire global population. The Amur Falcon is a small raptor and weighs only about 150 to 200 grams. Ali & Ripley (1987) and Naoroji (2007) both noted that the birds fly across China to India and Bangladesh in the first stage of their massive flight across the ocean to Africa. It has one of the of longest migration routes of all birds — doing upto 22,000 km in a year — from eastern Asia all the way to Southern Africa and back. Sheltered by hills that are steep and surrounded by water, the falcons roost here for about a month, foraging on insects, and building their body mass so they can fly across the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean into Africa. An Indian documentary filmmaker and his friends spent several days, as did a large, enthusiastic birding group from Bangalore in southern India. When this was witnessed by a local conservationist, she quickly jumped into action, gathered help and shared the story of the Amur Falcon migration, from Siberia to South Africa and back. These are seasoned travellers that journey annually, from northern China all the way to Somalia, Kenya, and South Africa. Amur falcons roost on trees in the surrounding hills. The peak of the falcon migration neatly coincides with the seasonal, post-monsoon opening of Kaziranga National Park in neighboring Assam state, a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts visitors from around the world. Several families in Pangti invested in improvements so they could take in visitors; the Tsopoes, with whom we were staying, built a two-stall, Western-style bathroom in their side yard, and a dirt-floored washroom with a sink. Quickly, leading bird-protection groups within India and abroad, such as the Bombay Natural History Society and BirdLife International, decried the killing, as online petitions battered the government for action, and viewers around the world reacted with horror to the images. That was the stick, but in the months that followed, conservationists presented the carrot to village leaders as they described the global migration of the falcons—and the worldwide revulsion expressed at the slaughter in Nagaland. “It was overwhelming, you know. Males have a sooty, grey plumage, white under-wings, and rufous-coloured feathers on their thighs. Amurs, however, breed in wooded margins and the edges of savannas from eastern China and North Korea to parts of Siberia and Mongolia (an area roughly a third the size of the Lower 48 in the U.S.), from which they make one of the longest migrations of any raptor in the world, some 8,000 miles one way to southern Africa. The small birds hardly put up a fight and were no match for the skilled poachers. Photo: Seshadri KS. To fuel up for their big open-water crossing, Amur Falcons stop over in Nagaland to feast on a seasonal eruption of trillions of termites from their underground colonies. As we ate, we tried to ease the kinks from our long-suffering bones. We were by now skirting the Doyang Reservoir, a hydroelectric impoundment along which the birds normally roost by the tens of thousands. Taking our cue from the falcons, we headed back for breakfast. In Asia, the Amur falcon can be found around the Amur river region, in southeastern Russia, northern China and eastern Mongolia, sometimes all the way east to the Korean peninsula. Traveling to see the greatest birding spectacle on earth is not for the faint of heart, as roads into the region traverse treacherous mountain passes prone to landslides. Nchumo and his wife have several children at home, and two older kids at boarding school, the only choice for more than a grade-school education. During our stay a few small groups from elsewhere in India—in twos and threes, and most (to judge from their lack of equipment) not birders—showed up at the watchtowers. Some of the men shifted to fishing in the new reservoir, despite forests of sunken trees that tore up their nets. A lack of community-wide equity is a major problem, Mehta believes. Humans have always been fascinated with understanding the migration of birds. “So…way more than a thousand,” I said at last. Two satellite-tagged Amur Falcons have been tracked on their migration route, clocking up some 29,000 km in the process. An Amur Falcon local-pride effort followed the same model that has worked elsewhere for other threatened birds in need of a PR campaign. Along with Abidur and our drivers, with me for the trek was my friend Kevin Loughlin, owner of Wildside Nature Tours, who was exploring the feasibility of bringing American tourists to Pangti to see the falcons. We saw four. We’d met Bano for dinner in a small wooden house in Pangti that serves as the headquarters for the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust, a nonprofit that she founded. Over water, the hot-air thermals and deflection currents that assist raptors migrating over land, allowing them to soar for hours and save energy, are largely absent. Today, they are proud that Amur falcons choose to visit them every year. Within minutes the sky was full of birds, turning our disappointment into joy. TERMS OF USE It seems Amur Falcons have always stopped off in northeastern India during migration to feed on termites, but the completion of the Doyang Reservoir in 2000 dramatically altered the situation, for both the falcons and the local villagers. Once or twice we were startled by the explosive warning “bark” of the small forest deer known as muntjacs off in the blackness. Mrs. Tsopoe brought the evening meal from their dirt-floored kitchen—delicious pork that had seasoned for weeks in the smoke above the open cooking hearth, pots of sticky rice and dhal, long beans, and steaming boiled squash. In 2012, an investigation revealed that thousands of Amur falcons had been trapped and sold for local consumption in Nagaland. Then Conservation India and the local wildlife trust launched a massive, multipronged community educational campaign with funds, materials, and support from BirdLife International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the venerable Bombay Natural History Society, and other conservation groups. This went on for hours, each new, departing rush of birds seeming as though they must be the last in the roost—yet when we’d peer through our scope, the trees would appear as heavily laden with perching falcons as before. Passage records of Amur Falcon Falco amurensis from SE Asia and southern Africa including first records from Ethiopia. Conservationists started eco-clubs for children in Pangti and surrounding communities and gave “Amur Ambassador Passports” to those who pledged to protect the birds. News of this poaching made a global splash and international conservation organisations upped the ante to ensure the birds were not harmed at their staging site in Nagaland. In barely more than a year, the villages made a hard transition with serious economic consequences, giving up the income that falcon meat represented—partly because it was the right thing to do, and also because they’d been told by conservationists that tourism could make up the loss. There was a constant drone in the air, and a monotonous chatter of birds. This is where Bano Haralu, a member of the local community, came into the picture. I had been lured here by news stories over the previous couple of years about Amur Falcons in Nagaland that seemed almost too good to be true anyway: Conservationists stumble upon a previously unknown concentration of raptors that is arguably the largest in the world, only to find that local hunters are slaughtering the birds at a wildly unsustainable rate. You don’t know where to start, what to do, what to say, how not to offend people, not create a scene,” Bano told us. Worker termites chew tunnels to the surface, out of which emerge trillions of winged, inch-long fertile adults known as alates—fat-rich and the perfect food for an insectivorous falcon about to risk an ocean crossing. We have some very bird-rich areas. Their migration to Africa coincides with the time when due to rains swarm of insects will be everywhere, making South Africa a great feeding ground. They had survived the day, only to take to the air again the next morning and prepare to make a long over-sea journey across the equator into Africa. Ideally, this needs to happen in their native breeding range, migrating pathways, and in their wintering grounds — a dynamic and seemingly insurmountable challenge. Mr. Tsopoe introduced us to two young men, whom he said would be our guides in the morning. In other parts of the country, wetlands and naturally occurring grasslands — prime habitat for several species of migrant ducks and harriers — are being converted to agriculture fields or plantations, which are suboptimal habitats. Mohali – 160062, Punjab, United States By and large, bird migration continues to be a mystery to nature enthusiasts and scientists. Initially we felt let a little down, for there were hardly any falcons in the skies and all the ‘fruits’ on the tree were gone, but around 4.40 pm, when the sky began to darken, we saw a distant flock of falcons approaching. It also happens to be my favourite bird. Across the landscape, like smoke pushed by a light breeze, gauzy columns of thousands of falcons rose from other roosts and bent with the wind as they caught the morning’s first thermals. Researchers are only now exploring how long the falcons stay and how much weight they gain while there. funded by donors like you. Then something—on one occasion, a jungle crow dive-bombing the trees—would set them off once more, and they would erupt in fresh waves tens of thousands strong, layer upon layer of slender birds on long, narrow wings, swirling in counterclockwise gyres. But Bano Haralu and others are glad there’s a road to Pangti, and they wish it was nicer. “They taste very good.”, “It was a huge loss of money,” Bano admitted, but some in the village saw the potential for tourism. Publicity events such as falcon-celebration festivals brought in governmental dignitaries to issue “Falcon Capital of the World” proclamations while choruses of schoolkids sang pro-falcon songs they had written themselves. Amur falcons were first satellite tracked along their migration route from Newcastle (South Africa) back to Mongolia in 2010. We were near the convergence of a great inrushing of wings and movement, coming from all points on the compass, like a black hole drawing everything toward itself. The story of the incredible Amur Falcon migration stopover in Nagaland, India, broke to international news in 2012. It was a jaw-dropping tale, with reports of over 100,000 birds seen at a time at the newly created Doyang Reservoir. Amur falcons travel up to 22,000 km in a year, this being one of the longest migration routes of all birds The Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) is a complete, long distance, trans-equatorial migrant. As the light grew, so did the number of birds, the whisper of their wings rising now to an omnipresent swish, like fast-flowing water. During the day, the falcons (right) rest and feed on grasshoppers, as they need to fortify themselves for the arduous, nonstop journey across the Arabian Sea into Africa. Every year, huge flocks of them fly south, from North China, Siberia and Russia (where they breed) to southern Africa for the winter. It was perhaps the largest non-human congregation anywhere on the Indian subcontinent. The birds travel all the way from high up in Eastern Asia to Africa every year. For Pangti as a whole, the end of falcon-trapping meant foregoing about 3.5 million rupees annually, a huge sum in such a remote, cash-strapped area, especially because many people used that money to pay their children’s school fees. Surely we’d misunderstood him, but no. Amur falcons are known to have among the longest migration routes, covering 22,000km. Bano is a former journalist and a managing trustee of the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust. It was cool, with a light breeze and no stars, but soon I could see the silhouette of a 40-feet-tall wooden watchtower, newly built for visiting birders, which rose against the slightly lighter sky as we emerged along the edge of the lake. Trapping and selling falcons had become a universal cottage industry. New Delhi: Flying thousands of kilometres from their breeding grounds in northern China and eastern Mongolia, nearly a million Amur falcons, a small grey bird of prey, regularly descend across northeast India for nearly a month in October to feed and rest before continuing their journey to southern Africa. Although the Naga live in hilltop communities, their terraced fields, orchards, and rice paddies lie primarily in the valleys—in the case of Pangti, along the narrow flood plain of the Doyang River. Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) is a small raptor (bird of prey) of the falcon family. They also found that local fishermen, stringing their nets among the roost trees, were killing an estimated 140,000 falcons in just one 10-day period during the peak of the migration—-plucking the carcasses, smoking them over open fires to preserve them, then selling the birds in larger towns for badly needed cash. “I witnessed a massive swarm of these little falcons flying into the South African town of Cradock to roost for the night,” one commenter wrote on YouTube. It also is unusual in migrating over sea and migrates during the night (Meyburg 2010). The Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) is a trans-equatorial migrant (crossing the equator) and has one of the longest migratory routes of any raptor in the world. While the falcon trapping benefited most of the community, the new tourism-based paradigm helps a narrower segment, said Deven Mehta, a junior research fellow at the Wildlife Institute of India who is studying the diet of the Amur Falcons near Pangti. Poachers would suspend their fishing nets on long poles and unsuspecting falcons would fly straight into them and get tangled. “Maybe…what? But slowly, we have understood. Visit one of India’s least-explored corners at its easternmost extension near the Myanmar border. Travelling with Rockjumper means you basically don’t have to worry about anything other than getting the birds in the binoculars, the guides take care of the rest which results in a really relaxing and enjoyable bird watching trip.” Haha ! But the fishermen also noticed something they’d never seen before—that the falcons were now gathering in incredible numbers each autumn night in small groves of trees along the lake, then fanning out to hunt termites and other insects during the day. Today, they are overwhelmingly Baptists, inhabiting a defiantly un-Indian part of India and trying for decades to break away on their own. There must be a special hell reserved for these bastards.”. Unlike most raptors, Amur Falcons are highly social most of the year. The quality of not only the Rockjumper guides but the local guides as well was first class. Thankfully, we did not have to wait long, and by 4 am, there was enough light to see the horizon. As the day progressed, the sky remained overcast. CORBET , P. S. 1962 . Hundreds of plucked falcons, skewered through the head, hung smoking over fires; hundreds more, alive, were jammed into zippered mosquito nets that functioned as holding cages until they, too, could be killed. Cover Photo: Seshadri KS. The ride to the main roost site down by the reservoir took 45 minutes, and given the hour and the mood, no one had much energy or inclination to talk. The only way to know for sure is if the Amur falcons continue to turn up each winter for years to come. “The birding in Bangalore is incredible. No one knows, however, what draws tens of thousands of Amur Falcons to the reservoir in autumn. It was clear that government authorities would no longer turn a blind eye to the killing, which was officially illegal. After two years of planning, and days of wearying travel, it seemed our journey had all been in vain. When we arrived at our destination in Doyang, we alighted from the jeep, and walked on a narrow trail to reach a watchtower: our vantage point for the spectacle. The completion of the Doyang Reservoir also created the site for what may be the greatest concentration of raptors in the world. Amur falcons, the world’s longest travelling raptors start travelling with the onset of winters. Scott Weidensaul is a naturalist and Pulitzer-nominated author of more than two dozen books about natural history. IT C-7 KMG Tower Raptors returning to their roosting sites at dusk seeking safety in numbers. The combination of more rigorous law enforcement and pervasive education campaigns has proven so effective that conservationists were unaware of even a single bird being trapped during the past several migration seasons. The Amur falcon is a small raptor of the falcon family. One of them was Nchumo Odyuo, a slender, soft-spoken man who is a neighbor of the Tsopoes, a former trapper now active in the protective union. The Amur Falcon is a fascinating migratory raptor. About 45 minutes after sunset, falcons began streaming in—first hundreds of birds a minute, then thousands, a sheet of movement against the band of orange and purple light on the west ern horizon. The Amur Falcons are birds of prey, about 28-31cm and weigh around 100 grams. The males are dark gray above, paler below, with elegantly contrasting white wing linings and a splash of bright rufous on the thighs and undertail coverts. Birds that had been milling about began to settle, while some flocks flew away, probably in search of food. Amur Falcons migrate from breeding grounds in eastern Asia to wintering grounds in southern Africa. By 2003, fishermen were shinnying up the roost trees in late afternoon, tying their monofilament nets among the branches and returning in the morning to retrieve hundreds of falcons.
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