Women for Nature: Mittal Gala and Garima Bhatia.

Heart of Conservation Podcast. Ep #22 Part I Show Notes (Edited)

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi! I am Lalitha Krishnan and I am back after a very long time. You are listening to part one of episode #22 of Heart of Conservation podcast. This is season three. I bring you stories from the wild that keep us connected to our natural world. This episode focuses on bird life. I am speaking to three amazing women who are working for Nature Conservation Foundation, they manage and coordinate three programmes, Bird Count India, Early Bird and Nature Classrooms. Let’s find out what they’re all about.

A little warning. These interviews were conducted over Skype separately and they are not all of a consistent quality. First, I am talking to Mittal Gala. She took the plunge into wildlife after several years of working a corporate job. She has worked at Agumbe, one of the wettest places in India, at a reptile zoo in Chennai and as the chief naturalist at an eagle lodge near Ranthambore National Park.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you so much for speaking to me on Heart of Conservation podcast Mittal.

Mittal Gala: Thank you, Lalitha.  

Lalitha Krishnan: So, You’re are a naturalist who runs Bird Count India at NCF, so can you explain what bird count is and your role?

Mittal Gala: Yes, so Bird Count India is an informal partnership of organizations and groups and then this includes government, non-government organizations, groups on Facebook, birding groups on Facebook, WhatsApp and naturalist birding communities, so with all of them we work together to increase their knowledge of bird distribution and the populations and Bird Count India aims to promote bird watching and bird monitoring with a view to generate knowledge and we do this through eBird. It’s a very useful tool to monitor birds.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK, so Mittal how did you start working for NCF?

Mittal Gala: So, for the last all many years I have been birding but it was until, it was not until 2013 when I actually started looking at citizen science projects in India. I was introduced to this Citizen Science Sparrow where we conducted interviews with various public visiting the park that I was working and we were collecting information on sparrows because at that time it was believed that the sparrows are declining and we wanted to find out reasons and I was told that with this kind of documentation, scientists will be able to find out what is happening to sparrows, so that fascinated me a lot and then I started exploring other programmes in India that involve citizen science and I came across eBird and I think I’ve been using eBird for almost, since 2014 or so and then when there was an opportunity in Bird Count India to work with birds and promoting citizen science, I went for it.

Lalitha Krishnan: Great! Do you want to briefly tell us about eBird?

Mittal Gala: So eBird is one of the largest citizen science projects in the world that involves gathering of information in the form of checklist, bird lists uploaded by birdwatchers. So many bird watchers like to keep a diary of the birds that they saw, where they saw it and how many they saw. So, all these lists were just gathering dust in their diaries, there were not being used for any anything and when eBird became popular in India and the idea of having all this information put on a common platform and people started seeing this it was a game changer and a lot of birders got highly excited about it, a lot of old birders also went back to their diaries and then uploaded all their information on eBird. Like a digital diary that not only helps a birdwatcher to keep a record of his or her sightings but also helps the scientific community because all the information is gathered at one place for them to analyze and look at.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yeah, I think that’ll be useful for people who still haven’t used eBird.

Mittal Gala: Since the pandemic a lot of people are just birding from their garden. They have got hooked to eBird on their phone so it’s very easy.

Lalitha Krishnan: Bird Count like you explained is pro citizen science right? So then give us a little detail about the projects that you all are working on.

Mittal Gala: A few years back if someone would have asked what is the most common bird in India there would not be a single answer to it. Everybody in different parts of the country will have different answers but now we have data to say that common mynah is the most common species in most parts of the country. This data is based on the list that get uploaded during the great backyard bird count. Its just based on this four day data we were able to analyze to see what are the most common species, the most reported species in India across different regions, North, West, East, South and we found out that most regions common mynah makes the top first species and this great backyard bird count happens every year in February with bird watchers across the world engaging in watching listening and listing birds through eBird and since this event is carried out around the same time of the year in February, it helps to create an annual real time snapshot of bird distributions. It is a global event and it’s celebrated widely across the world but we also have national events and regional events following the same concept and yeah and a lot of interesting things come out when people participate in this event.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s interesting. So your regional and other events they would be spread out through the year, is it or is it around the same time?

Mittal Gala: No, most of the time it is, so for example, most of the time it is the harvest, some regions like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, they have it during the harvest festival, Pongal, Onam and Bihu bird count in Assam and then we have the national…BNHS has it Salim Ali Bird Count in October, yeah, during Salim Ali’s birthday, so yeah, it is you can say they are spread out but most of the events happen between October to March, I would say.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK, great! Apart from all this  you also have the monthly birding challenges. How well is that received?

Mittal Gala: The monthly challenges were designed to supplement the annual bird events and they were designed in a way that birdwatchers can keep a track of the birds they see on a regular basis, maybe on a daily basis. So for example in winter months when we have a winter month that is December, January ,our challenges are focused on the winter migrants that arrived in India from various parts of the globe and then again when it is too hot we have challenges where people can just be at one place, which is called stationary birding and they can make lists standing from one place from the garden or from the balcony and things like that. So, this monthly challenges also contributes towards our understanding about the distribution and abundance of birds. It also serves as a kind of motivation for many birdwatchers to go and observe birds regularly.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right, and specially I think now they must enjoy…. the number of birders must have increased, I am sure.

Mittal Gala:Yes, yes!

Lalitha Krishnan: So, what kind of groups or organizations of people approach you for help, you know, in studying birds of their locality?

Mittal Gala: So, we are approached by birding groups, mostly nonscientific organizations that are interested in training workshops on bird documentation and monitoring. We also support regional events as I talked about Pongal Bird Count in Tamil Nadu, Onam Bird Count in Kerala. So, initially we used to help give support to these events but now over the years these events are doing so great they don’t need any help from us and we just help them to advertise that events on our platform, on our website but otherwise they are just doing well on their own and then many cities are interested in creating bird atlases. I’m not sure if you’re aware of Bird Atlas of India. OK so a bird atlas is a, is again a citizen science project intended to map the distribution and abundance of a region’s birds. So, in an active project the region of interest is typically divided into cells that are often subdivided into smaller cells and then a design is created so that volunteer birdwatchers can go and do uniform sampling. So, Mysore city finished its two-year bird atlas and Kerela state had amazing five year bird atlas that just got finished, I think, maybe January this year or something and they are now working on the analysis. And Pune and Coimbatore just started their atlas, but with the pandemic things are going a bit slow.

Lalitha Krishnan: Sure yeah! Wow!

Mittal Gala: It is amazing to know that birders are interested to know what birds are migratory or what is the status in the city, they want to know each and every part of the city, they want to know what’s happening to their birds.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s fascinating. I’m myself and hearing my friends who are not… who probably don’t look at the birds, suddenly wondering what is this bird? Can you tell me what this is? You know… and it’s so nice to hear that, not that I’m an expert but I do have books.

Mittal Gala: That’s really heartening to know because they started paying attention to these things which have always been around but ignored but now it’s nice to know that people are noticing it.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right, right! Do you also train birding guides?

Mittal Gala: Whenever possible. So, this is how it works, as I said people approach us to conduct workshops in their areas for the birding community and if when we are conducting such workshops we make sure that not only the bird watchers over there but if there are nature guides around they are also invited for those workshops and sometimes we also get approached by Forest Department. So, a few years ago we did a workshop for the guides from the Kanha Tiger Reserve and then recently we did workshops in East Sikkim where there were lot of freelance birding guides who had attended this workshop and then in Rajasthan we did for the nature guide for the Bharatput Bird Sanctuary and the guides for the Forest Department in Jaipur. So yes, we do train bird guides.

Lalitha Krishnan: This is so exciting for you also to travel to all these exotic places. Nice!  Do you have any memorable moments you’d like to share with us?

Mittal Gala: Quite a few actually, so I would just share may be a couple here. So at this place where I was working as a naturalist, this was in Ranthambore, so my lodge was quite…it was outside the National Park but quite close, so we used to have wild animals walking in all the time. And I had been observing a pair of kingfishers that were nesting-this is in our lodge campus-and so I used to wake up early morning with my breakfast, go there and just wait to see with the first light what would the kingfishers do today? And at one point while I was watching them, at the corner of my eye I felt something is walking around and then I took my binoculars and I see that it is a small cat but he has spots on it and it happened to be a leopard cub.

Lalitha Krishnan: You are kidding me, Wow!

Mittal Gala: Well maybe the adult was around, may be would have gone ahead or must be hiding somewhere but I saw the leopard cub, one single cub trotting along this fallow land. So again, while birding I have passed a tiger, in a sitting… hiding behind a grass, I had no idea and I had been just looking through my binoculars and I didn’t notice the tiger tracks on the path that I was walking and it was only when I turned around I saw my, the staff of the hotel telling me to come back because of the tiger in the grass.

Lalitha Krishnan: So, birding has a lot of benefits, other benefits.

Mittal Gala: So yeah, you have to concentrate on the calls also, you have to make sure that you don’t miss any movement in the trees or around you, could be a bird so that makes you very, I mean, you are, your senses are active all the time and that’s when you see all the other things.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s really lovely actually, you’re so right, you stay still and you observe. Could you finally share word that’ll add to our birding vocabulary please?

Mittal Gala: Yeah, so one word which I learnt, couple of years back, interesting thing called ‘twitcher’. Twitcher is an obsessive list keeping birder who pursues rare birds discovered by others and sometimes these twitchers can go to great lengths to see that bird. They might just fly from one state to the other in few hours just to see that bird.

Lalitha Krishnan: Really!

Mittal Gala: They are crazy birders.

Lalitha Krishnan: So that’s really a new word for me. So tell me people who look at still looking for the Himalayan quail are they twitchers or are they optimistic?

Mittal Gala: If the bird is seen, for example, just a few months back there was a Red breasted goose seen in Gujarat. Because of the pandemic lot of people in the rest of the India couldn’t, but if there was no pandemic then people from Jammu or people from other states of North or something Northeast they would have taken a flight and gone to see it.

Lalitha Krishnan: Wow! I can imagine but I think at least they’re looking in our country, I feel we have so much diversity and you know when people go across continents to go to some National Park, you know, I keep saying hey there’s so much here come back, you know.

Mittal Gala: Yeah, that’s true.

Lalitha Krishnan: Anyway, this has been so great. Thank you so much!

Mittal Gala: Thank you Lalitha, I enjoyed a lot.

Lalitha Krishnan: I’m now speaking with Garima Bhatia. She calls herself a chemical engineer by profession and a nature lover by passion. She followed her love for birds and joined the NCF and is now the project manager, education and public engagement, Early Bird programme. Garima, welcome to Heart of Conservation and thank you so much for being a guest on this show.

Garima Bhatia: Thank you so much Lalitha, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Lalitha Krishnan: Garima, let’s start with how you switched professions from engineering to more nature-based one.

Garima Bhatia: Sure Lalitha. So, I, as I, as you rightly mentioned I’m a chemical engineer by training and along the way I got interested in bird watching as a hobby. And yes there was some seeds of it in early childhood because my father used to point out birds from our balcony, so while I was in an engineering job I got fascinated by birds and that’s mostly due to where I live in Bangalore. There was this huge abandoned lot where I would observe a number of colorful birds every morning and that got me interested again, and overtime it just grew into an obsession really. So every holiday, every weekend whenever I had free time I would be out birding. So by the time, you know, it so happened that the company I was working for decided to close down its Bangalore operations and we were given three months of advance notice and to look for other jobs but then I decided that instead of looking for another engineering job I would try and do something related to my passion which was still bird watching and traveling and I was also passionate about passing this on to the next generation. So one thing led to another and I joined NCS to start off this project called Early Bird which was six years ago.

Lalitha Krishnan: This is lovely Garima, you sort of opened a door for yourself and not many people are able to do that and to be able to work with nature is really nice. So, are you the brain behind Early Bird? Tell me something about that.

Garima Bhatia: Yes. So I joined at the time, I was hired by Suhail who heads our programme in NCF, it’s called Education and Public engagement and this was a new project that he wanted to start off. And so I won’t say that I am alone, you know, solely the brain behind Early Bird, it’s a collaborative effort with Suhail and with lots of other people who helped along the way, joined the project and also a lot of partners on the ground. Because, we have always been a very small team, so we have a great network of well-wishers and supporters who give us feedback, who try out what we have developed and, you know, help us distributed it. So, it’s really been a collaborative effort in many ways.

Lalitha Krishnan: OK and could you tell me something more about Early Bird? What is the goal of this programme?

Garima Bhatia: So, when we started, this was six and a half years ago, we realized that bird watching is growing very fast as a hobby in India and we could see it in, you know, the number of people who were interested in birds, who were traveling to watch birds, the number of books that were coming out but we realized that there isn’t too much material for children. How do we pass on this wonderful hobby to children and get them excited. So, that was the motivation, you know, to try and get children excited about birds and the first step in doing so was to produce material that’s attractive, that’s very produced, that really get children hooked onto birds. So that was the start.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s a great start. I also read something you have called the ‘birding buddies’ and ‘training the trainers’, so would you like to tell us something about that?

Garima Bhatia: Yeah, so eventually we realized that, you know, as a small team we don’t have that much reach, we really can’t do too many engagements directly with children but what we can do to amplify our impact is to train the teachers and the educators who really work with children on the ground. So we started this series of workshops called ‘how to be a birding buddy’ and these were meant actually not just for teachers but for any amateur birdwatcher because, you know, as birdwatchers we often get requests from our friends and family, you know, people we know in our neighborhood to take children on a bird walk or children and adults or to come and give a talk about birds and, you know, what is it that one can really do to pass this on to children. So we designed a workshop where we take the participant through, you know, different techniques tips and tricks that they can use to get children excited about birds and it’s a lot more than just knowing how to identify birds, there are various different techniques to use, there is art, there is poetry, change and you know all kinds of creative techniques to use. So, we designed this workshop few years back and we recently had an online version of this workshop because in the past year we haven’t been able to conduct any one on one sessions really, so a couple of weeks back was our first online birding buddy workshop and we hope to offer more of these going forward.

Lalitha Krishnan: Alright! That must have been quite a change, so how was it received?

Garima Bhatia: So, it was received quite well we had a lot of interest and the advantage of an online workshop is that, you know, anyone can join from anywhere. So, we had a large number of applicants but we had to select a smaller group because, you know, while online we can host of much bigger group but our workshops are usually interactive and we like people to really talk to each other and share their experiences. So, we selected a small group of 30 educators, so most of them were actually teachers at different schools and many of them were people who are involved in nature education either in a voluntary capacity or through some organization that conducts awareness and outreach.

Lalitha Krishnan: With the pandemic I’m sure all your workshops must have come to a complete halt. So, then what did you all guys do?

Garima Bhatia: Yeah, so with the pandemic, you know, we were really constrained in terms of not being able to conduct any events and also our partners who work with children were not able to conduct events, schools were closed and nobody was conducting bird walks. So we decided to do a series of online sessions about birds and we realized that there was a lot of interest in birds because people were homebound and suddenly started observing nature around them. So, there was a lot of interest in watching birds and nature, so we started a series of webinars and we’ve conducted 33 sessions in the last year in five different languages. And they start from a very introductory kind of level where you introduce two birds and the sounds around you, to sessions by scientists who speak about their work in very simple terms that even a child c could understand. So, we did a series of these webinars which are all available on our YouTube channel.

Lalitha Krishnan: For those of you who are listening, do check it out and I’d love to join a future webinar so yeah do let me know.

Garima Bhatia: So actually there’s been a lot of, there have been a lot of requests to us to restart the webinars, so initially, in the initial few months of the pandemic we did a lot of sessions but after a while, you know, every organization was conducting webinars and there was what seemed like an overload of online sessions, so we decided to give a break and take a step back but we may do, you know, maybe once in two months going forward, a session from a scientist talking about something interesting.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s fascinating and interesting Garima, I wish you luck. I also wanted to ask you where can I find, you know, other resources?

Garima Bhatia: So, we have a website where we have a number of resources that are available for free download. And there are games that children can play, individual games as well as group games that a teacher can use in the classroom. There are interactive posters on birds of different habitats where you can really learn about their calls and these are available in nine different languages. We have print materials also that can be purchased, but our website is www.early-bird.in and that’s where you can find all of these. We are also very active on social media so you can look this up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and of course our YouTube channel.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thanks for that Garima. I also wanted to ask you do you have any advice for birders, you know, most of us are still in our balconies not venturing too far and it’s the seasons are changing, the birds are nesting, so do you have any advice for birders especially those with cameras and who might have something interesting going on just outside the window?

Garima Bhatia: Yeah, well my advice would be to start noticing, you know, even common birds that are around us because often now photographers are always searching for that new species that they haven’t seen before or some, you know, exotic bird but there’s a lot of beauty right around us and, you know, wild life exists around us. So, to become a little more aware of that. And as we get into the summer and the monsoon so a lot of resident birds start nesting, so that can be fascinating to watch if you’re lucky enough to have a nest of a sunbird, a tailorbird in your neighborhood but the advice would be to keep a distance and, you know, the welfare of the bird should always come first and that’s the cardinal rule of birding.

Lalitha Krishnan: Garima I just heard a bird behind you agreeing wholeheartedly. So Garima I have one last question, could you share a word related to birding, if possible, that would help us increase our vocabulary.

Garima Bhatia: Yes, I have one, it’s not one word, it’s two words. It’s brood parasite. So a brood parasite is a species that relies upon another species to bring up its young and in the world of birds we have a lot of brood parasites around us and they are the cuckoo family and the most common one is the Asian koel which is spread across India and what’s fascinating about it is that it lays its eggs in the nest of another bird usually a crow’s nest. And the crow or the other target species brings up the chicks not knowing that, you know, it’s some somebody else’s egg that they are helping to incubate and hatch and bring up the babies. So that’s my word for the day.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thanks Garima! I have also seen pictures of, you know, these cuckoos laying their eggs in the nests of really small birds and it’s fascinating how these little birds are feeding these chicks that are really double their size sometimes.

Garima Bhatia: So yeah, absolutely, and actually it’s really fascinating because the reason for that is that the cuckoo tries to match the colour of its eggs to the colour of the host specie’s eggs, so that, you know, they won’t find out that there’s an extra egg because they all look the same. So, it turns out that, you know, sometimes those host species are much smaller birds, you know, I think the evolutionary, they are evolved to, you know, to ignore any visually differences and maybe they just think of they have a really special offspring that looks different from all other offsprings.

Lalitha Krishnan: They won’t be the first species to want super kids, right! Anyway, thank you so much Garima it’s been so interesting talking to you.

Garima Bhatia: Thank you Lalitha, it was a pleasure talking to you.

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope you enjoyed this episode. Stayed tuned for Part II. I am Lalitha Krishnan and you are listening to Heart of Conservation. You can read the show notes on my blog Earthy Matters. You can also write to me at earthymatters013@gmail.com. Heart of Conservation is available on several platforms, so do check it out and till next time stay safe and keep listening.

Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the podcast and show notes belong solely to the guest featured in the episode, and not necessarily to the host of this podcast/blog or the guest’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

Photos courtesy: Mittal Gala and Garima Bhatia. Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan. Special thanks to Akshay Shah who helped transcribe the show notes.

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