Six unusual habitats that are birding hotspots
2018 is “Year of the Bird”, a year-long celebration in partnership with National Geographic, National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab on Ornithology. This month we’re encouraging you to “Bird Your World” by getting out there and spending time with the birds you love – no matter where you are.
We may love birds, but how often do we actually get to see them? Most of us would say, not as often as we’d like to. All too frequently, life gets in the way. We’re caught up in work and our to-do list of a hundred little chores, and when we look up, months have gone by since we last really appreciated their presence in our lives. As every relationship expert will tell you, keeping the love alive takes work.
Luckily, birds are everywhere. As renowned bird writer Jonathan Franzen says, “The only life forms more widespread than birds are microscopic”. It doesn’t matter if you can’t afford to travel the world. It doesn’t matter if you live in a city or only have a lunch-break at your disposal. Here are some top birding hotspots that will really surprise you – and we’re sure they’ll inspire you to find some of your own.
1. Rubbish dumps
Refuse has become a vital refuge for the world’s most Endangered stork, the Greater Adjutant Leptoptilos dubius – an enormous bird that frequently grows to the height of an adult human. These birds evolved to live in wetlands and coastal zones, but their natural home is being encroached upon by re-development and degraded by pollution. As a result, there could now be fewer than a thousand adults remaining.
A surprising lifeline is the garbage dumps surrounding the city of Guwahati in Assam, India. These act as essential feeding grounds which may be supporting as much as half of the Greater Ajutant’s world population. Every time a refuse truck arrives, birds flock to it, cramming their gullets with discarded meat. It may not be glamorous, but it works – and this is one of the best places to guarantee seeing these fascinating birds.
The organic vineyard of Pago El Baldío in Trebujena, Andalucía (southern Spain), provides the ideal home for the Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin Cercotrichas galactotes.
Although it has a conservation status of Least Concern globally, this charming bird has seen significant declines in Spain – but bird-friendly farming is helping to halt this downward turn. The wine-makers don’t mind if the Robins steal the odd grape to feed their chicks, because they also eat the insects that would otherwise devour the crop – a natural form of pest control. What’s more, it brightens their day to see this beautiful bird flitting between the vines on their land as they go about their daily work.
3. Sacred Groves
India’s Sacred Groves are verdant patches of forest or natural vegetation, usually dedicated to local folk deities. In Meghalaya, a state in Northeast India whose name means “The Abode of Clouds” in Sanskrit, local communities have protected small areas of native forest since time immemorial. The villagers believe that departed souls of ancestors reside there. No one collects fruits, flowers, leaves or wood from these areas, and as a result, they have been left almost untouched for centuries.
Although tiny, Mawphlang Sacred Grove is a haven for around 70 bird species, including the Tawny-breasted Wren-babbler Spelaeornis longicaudatus (Vulnerable) – and it’s just one of hundreds of pockets of peace dotted about the country.
4. Salt pans
Just because it’s man-made, doesn’t mean it’s not good for birds. Conservation and commerce can go hand in hand, and waterbirds love foraging for food in the shallow waters of traditional salt pans. Extracting salt through the natural evaporation of seawater, these vast expanses often act as crucial rest and re-fueling points for birds on their epic migration journey. In fact, the salt-pans of China are key players in the survival of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmaea (Critically Endangered), the star of last month’s Year of the Bird feature.
On the other side of the world, the stunning Ulcinj Salinas salt pans of Montenegro are a bustling habitat for a staggering 252 bird species – including flamingos and the Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus (Near Threatened). However, salt pans worldwide are closing, since they are no longer seen as cost-effective – and at one point, this site was almost turned into a hotel and golf course. Saved for now, the battle is ongoing.
5. Buddhist temples
Places of religious importance are often oases of peace and tranquility in a hectic world. And that means they’re oases of peace and tranquility for birds, too.
Tibet’s high-altitude Buddhist temples are home to some highly important pheasant populations. Not only do the Buddhist monks and nuns treat the natural landscape surrounding the temples with respect – they also enjoy feeding the pheasants. Shongsep Temple, perched on the mountainous slopes overlooking the Lhasa River, is a safe space for the Tibetan Eared-pheasant Crossoptilon harmani (Near Threatened). Elsewhere, its life has been plagued by hunting and deforestation, but here, it lives in the lap of luxury, and is often quite tame.
6. City skies
Even if you’re in the middle of a city, all you have to do is look up, and you’re sure to spot a bird sooner or later. But in some places, it gets extreme.
“Bottleneck sites” are places where large numbers of migrating birds, especially large, eye-catching species like birds of prey, storks or pelicans, pass through in a relatively small area, creating a birding spectacle. These bottlenecks are created by a combination of geography and climate. Narrow valleys, mountain ridges, or peninsulas stretching out to sea – all of these can funnel birds into startling aerial formations reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Sometimes these bottlenecks include major cities, such as Gibraltar and Panama City, where each spring and fall hundreds of thousands – and sometimes millions – of birds fly overhead on their way between their breeding and wintering grounds.
Get to know your local flock!
Because birds don’t just live in pristine woodland or untouched marshes. They live everywhere. That’s why we at BirdLife International have identified a network of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) – sites that are essential for bird conservation. And they come in all shapes and sizes. The Ulcinj salt pans are an IBA. So is Shongsep Temple, the Mawphlang Sacred Grove and the rock of Gibraltar. There’s even one near the rubbish dump in Guwahati – the Deepor Beel Bird Sanctuary.
Not all of them are protected – yet – but we’re working on it. And if you join the movement to #BirdYourWorld this year, you can help us.