Who could have guessed that a traffic-choked metropolis perpetually chock-a-block with construction, new projects under way, old ones halted due to red tapism snags, and bursting at the seams with overpopulation could enclose within it a birdwatcher’s paradise.
Yes, if you’re a resident of Karachi with a penchant for birdwatching, you don’t need to go deep into some jungle to seek a tranquil excursion into nature. This is the best part: just drive down to Seaview and Phase 8, DHA and see for yourself the beaches and bushes teeming with a variety of bird life.
When you’re out on your bird walk, you might come across Mirza Naim Beg, an avid birder with a camera in hand, documenting the beautiful creatures.
Karachi is inhabited by not just a diverse ethnic population but also a surprising variety of avian wildlife
Beg found the perfect combination of his passions — wildlife and photography — in bird-watching, after his retirement three years ago. His friends initially thought the idea of birding (looking out for birds) in Karachi was a joke. But Beg was undaunted, and started birding on his own, exploring in DHA, Phase 8. He picked up tips from senior birders, identified birds through reference material, and soon this hobby turned into a vocation based on a self-learning curve.
When Beg shared his photographs of local birds, no one could believe that these beauties were their neighbours. Many people said they had wanted to bird-watch, and even had expensive telephoto lenses, but didn’t know where to go. So Beg set up Dream Merchants, an active wildlife and bird-watching agency. Within a short period, he conducted more than 50 birding trips all over Sindh and also across Pakistan. He is behind three first-of-their-kind Birds of Sindh photography exhibitions (held from 2016 to 2017), where visitors conceded that they had been completely unaware of the existence of Sindh’s rich bird life.
The book Birds of Pakistan by Richard Grimmett, Tom Roberts and Tim Inskipp, published in 2009, lists 750 bird species in Pakistan. But Beg and his group of birdwatchers have added to this list some species they sighted which had previously not been documented.
The book Birds of Pakistan by Richard Grimmett, Tom Roberts and Tim Inskipp, published in 2009, lists 750 bird species in Pakistan. But Beg and his group of birdwatchers have added to this list some species they sighted which had previously not been documented. “Creating awareness is crucial, because I have noticed that when people become aware of our beautiful bird population, they start caring about it,” says Beg. “At this point, I am glad that the number of active birders in all four provinces is increasing by the day, thanks to the power of social media.”
His Facebook group ‘Birds of Sindh’ has recorded 230 species of birds, and his pan-Pakistan Facebook group ‘Birds of Pakistan’ has recorded more than 530 species to date. This year’s winter migration may bring more feathered friends and hopefully more birdwatchers too.
Before arranging a bird-watching trip for enthusiasts, Beg conducts a recce of the terrains where he knows some locals, and collects information about the presence of native birds. He takes bird-watchers to locations where a particular species will be present in that particular season, guiding the participants on what to look for and how to use their binoculars and cameras. Knowing bird calls helps in tracking birds and knowing bird behaviour helps in predicting their actions and reactions. Bright colours and loud noises scare away the birds, so participants are advised to wear light green, off-white or camouflage-print clothes and caps. Mobile phones must be switched off and the group can only speak in whispers. “In order to see birds, it is necessary to become a part of the silence,” Beg quotes Irish writer Robert Lynd.
Carrying notepads to record bird sightings, binoculars for close-up views and appropriate lenses and cameras to capture bird images makes the trips more engaging. “Low-end cameras or bridge cameras have terrific zoom, but DSLRs produce sharper images. I recommend at minimum a 300mm lens. Wildlife photography is most challenging as one cannot control the subject’s movements, the background or the light.”
Beg explains the distinction between bird-watching and birding. “While birdwatchers look at birds, birders look for them and look out for them. Birding is not just about taking pretty photos of birds, it also involves discovering and recording every aspect of their prevalence including their habitat, their numbers, whether they are resident or migratory, and in what seasons they visit. It involves observing any changes that occur, and being aware of the reasons for any decline or any threat faced by them.
“For example, the number of Siberian birds migrating to Pakistan during winters has greatly declined during the last few years due to climate change, over-hunting and loss of habitat. This year, however, there was a slight increase in their numbers, and we are trying to determine the reason for this improvement.”
Beg discourages photographing nesting, eggs and chicks as it can stress parents to abandon unhatched eggs or even chicks. It can also lead predators to the nests and chicks. Besides animal predators, these birds also face human poachers. Beg personally discourages poachers. “I have seen flamingos being sold in small cages in Empress Market,” he says. “The poachers don’t even know the birds’ diet, and most of the flamingos die in confinement. Pakistan needs to strictly implement anti-poaching laws and also create public awareness, or it will continue to lose its wildlife to the infamous cages of Empress Market. In my trips to interior Sindh, I have involved the locals in anti-poaching drives with positive results.” Recently, he involved the police and the Sindh Wildlife Department in stopping a gang who put up nets to catch the quails that visit Karachi from October onwards.
“The worldwide population of white-rumped vultures dropped drastically from hundreds of thousands to a few hundred. It took many years for scientists to discover that the cause was a drug being used on cattle which the vultures would ingest after feeding on the dead cattle’s flesh. By the time the drug was banned it had taken its toll on the vulture species. Pakistan is lucky to host around 50 of these vultures (besides three other vulture species) in the mountains of Nagarparkar. Although each sighting of birds in their natural habitat brings joy to the heart, one of my most exhilarating birding experiences was to see these vultures, one of the most threatened birds in the world.”
Two glaring examples of wildlife habitat destruction are the huge housing scheme on Super Highway which is bulldozing the beautiful green birding area of Kathore, a place Beg has named as ‘Margalla Hills of Sindh’ because of the diverse bird species found there; and the birders’ haven of Phase 8, DHA with a record of more than 35 bird species. Two years ago, Beg requested DHA authorities to not develop the land of thorny bushes that has become the habitat of an exotic variety of resident and migratory birds. He proposed that the local graveyard should be declared a avian sanctuary, which is a common international practice.
“We have already lost so many gifts from God in this country, such as coral reefs at Clifton beach, Nehr-i-Khayyam at Clifton Underpass, mangroves and their resident wildlife at Mai Kolachi, and the black buck that was a resident of Karachi,” Beg says. “If we don’t stop the threat of poaching, transgressing the hunting quotas and senseless deforestation, we may soon have no feathered friends left except for kites and crows. My mission continues to raise this awareness through my pictures, lectures and exhibitions. The next time you are out driving, keep an eye out for the little green bee-eaters feeding bees to their juveniles and teaching them how to hunt. You won’t see them if you are not looking for them.”
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 26th, 2017