Malaysia: Counting birds to save nature

Who says you can’t be part of a global environmental survey on birds, right from your own little garden?
Elena Koshy New Straits Times 28 Apr 18;

FOR most of my life, I hardly paid attention to birds. It was only as I grew older and more introspective did I become a person whose heart lifts whenever she hears an Asian koel singing, or the distinctive Helmeted hornbill calling, and who hurries out into the garden to spot the skittish Olive-backed sunbird flitting amongst my hibiscus. I watched them, drew them and soon stumbled into a hobby that seemed like a veritable rabbit hole into a world of natural wonders. I became a birdwatcher and I was never the same again.

Birdwatching is an adventure that begs to be embarked. A treasure hunt of sorts that leave you skulking through forest trails and the great wilderness beyond to look at beautiful flighty creatures that refuses to adhere to your well laid-out plans. They hide between branches, take flight before you can raise your trusted binoculars to your eyes and sometimes coyly make calls loud enough for you to twitch around excitedly but remain covertly hidden, much to your frustration.

You stalk wild creatures, not looking at pictures of them. You’re dependent on weather, geography and time of day. If you miss the Helmeted hornbill, there isn’t another showing for hours on end. It’s at heart, voyeuristic and you can’t do it without technology. To bring these creatures closer, you must interpose binoculars between yourself and the wild world. But the beauty about birds is that you can really find them anywhere. Out in your garden, in parks, in the cities, in our forests — the skies are literally the limit.

While the aesthetic beauty of birds remains undisputed (at least through the eyes of avid birdwatchers), these creatures play an even more significant role in determining the health of our planet. They’re the “canary in the coal mine” for our environment. Their health, abundance and distribution can signal trends in the health of the larger environment. What bird populations also usefully indicate is the health of our ethical values. One reason that birds matter — ought to matter — is that they’re our last, best connection to a natural world that’s otherwise receding.

On May 5, Global Big Day by eBird, a global ornithological network, invites you to be a part of a large movement of citizen scientists, to count birds. Your observations, alongside millions of others from countries around the world, will be compiled to power data-driven approaches to science, conservation as well as education.

Global Big Day

The skittish nature of birds makes them notoriously hard to count. There aren’t any sensors or apparatus invented to date that can note the type and number of birds in the area. Only people. Until the emergence of eBird which began collecting daily global data in 2002, one-day counts were the only method.

Launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University and the National Audobon Society, eBird began with a simple brainwave - that every birdwatcher has unique knowledge and experience.

Tapping into that idea, eBird came up with an online database of bird observations that gathers basic information on bird abundance and distribution. By engaging with the common man and amateurs to participate in citizen science, eBird is an example of crowdsourcing and has been praised as an example of democratising science, treating normal citizens as scientists, giving access to the public and providing them a platform to use their own data and the collective data generated by others.

eBird compiles and documents bird distribution, abundance, habitat use and trends through checklist data collected within an easy but scientific framework. Birdwatchers enter when, where and how they went bird watching. They fill out a checklist of all the birds seen and heard during the outing.

eBird’s free mobile app enables offline data collection anywhere in the world. It also offers incentives for birdwatchers to stay involved with apps that enable them to compile and keep their life lists (records of the species they’ve seen), compare their sightings with other birdwatchers and know where to look for birds they haven’t seen before.

The Global Big Day is an initiative spearheaded by eBird to gather birdwatchers from all over the world to stand on the common ground of birds, and record their sightings in one day, no matter where they are.

A spokesman from eBird says: “For us, Global Big Day is a celebration of birds. By bringing people together, Global Big Day showcases the great birds from each region while helping to bring awareness to birding and conservation, regionally and globally.”

The Malaysian connection

In this part of the world, eBird Malaysia is a collaborative project managed by the Wild Bird Club Malaysia (WBCM), a non-profit and membership-based organisation whose mission is to conserve Malaysia’s unique birds and their habitats through promoting best practices for birdwatching.

“On Global Big Day, we’d like to call out to all bird watchers in Malaysia to participate in this massive bird counting exercise. Why not head to your favourite birding spot on May 5 and count birds? It could be your backyard, or the highland forests of Frasers Hill, the mangroves of Kuala Selangor or

even the wilds of Belum,” says Mark Ng, vice-president of WBCM, before adding with a smile: “Bring your family and friends, and make it an event so that more people can get to know about birds and nature!”

“If you live in Malaysia, you’re lucky to have this wonderful diversity of fascinating birds filling every corner of this nation,” continues Andrew Sebastian, bird guide, chief executive officer of Ecotourism & Conservation Malaysia (ECOMY) and WBCM member. “Malaysia is home to 796 species. Sixty four are endemics, found nowhere else in the world.”

While birds have instincts and the physical abilities to survive diverse, even harsh conditions that evolution has bequeathed to them, human beings, points out Sebastian, are reshaping the face of the planet — its surface, climate and oceans — too quickly for birds to adapt by evolving. “The future of most bird species depends on our commitment to preserve them. The question we have to ask ourselves is: are they valuable enough for us to make the effort? The answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. They’re integral to our survival. It’s hard to imagine a world without birds in it.”

“Here’s your chance to make a difference,” chips in Ng. “Participate in this event and submit your findings on ebird Malaysia. If you’ve not done birdwatching before and are looking to explore this

interesting hobby, join us at the Wild Bird Club. Birdwatching is a wonderful way for people to connect back with nature.”

Join the Global Party

For birdwatchers, Global Big Day has given their pastime a new sense of purpose. Whether you see one bird or a thousand, it’s significant. And knowing that your observations can be used to make a difference to protect birds and their habitats, make this pursuit a meaningful one. And thanks to eBird, it’s not limited to just one single day, but all year round.

Join like-minded bird watchers from the Wild Bird Club Malaysia, participate in their activities and get to know our wondrous Malaysian avian species. From black and red broadbills, wreathed hornbills to the inquisitive sunbird perched on your windowsill, you can be sure that birdwatching may be just the adventure you’re seeking to embark.

As author and director of Cape May Bird Observatory puts it so succinctly: “Without birds, nature could lose her voice and the planet, its most engaging envoys. Birds matter precisely because they matter to us. Birds are real, elements that live within our sensory plane. They spread their wings and bridge the gap between our world and the natural world.”