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Migration. It is a word that, for most of us, conjures images of hordes of wildebeest and zebras traversing the plains of eastern Africa, in search of greener pastures and safe breeding grounds.

However, Mumbai, the city that never sleeps and yet is still made of dreams, also plays host to a similarly spectacular albeit smaller migration.

It might be difficult for some to imagine that this island city with its glittering skyscrapers and overcrowded slums, and all its twenty million souls milling about, might have any space left for nature to exist, let alone thrive.

And yet, one of the most marvellous wonders of the natural world plays out on an annual basis in our backwaters, the oft-forgotten creeks and wetlands with their lush mangrove forests.

Every year, tens of thousands of flamingos congregate around Mumbai in a riot of pink feathers and trumpeting calls, a veritable flamboyance of flamingos. In late October, once the rains have retreated from the Rann of Kutch, our feathered friends leave their breeding grounds and travel south in search of feeding grounds.

There are two species of flamingos in India, Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) and Lesser flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor), both of which travel to Mumbai’s mudflats and creeks. Here they feed on small crustaceans, algae and molluscs. And as they do so, is a true wonder of the natural world, the juvenile flamingos with their grey feathers are transformed into strikingly beautiful pink adults. (Due to the pigment beta-carotene that accumulates in their feathers as they feed on pigment-rich algae and crustaceans.)

This conference lasts six months, from November to late May painting the creeks pink. The flamingos feed and frolic in the low tide, sifting through the mudflats for their benthic breakfast and fly around Thane creek and Navi Mumbai in pink cloud-like flocks.

Migratory Patterns

Flamingo

Image Credit: Dr. Mahin Bhatt

Most flamingos that come to Mumbai, do so from the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat and Sambhar Lake in Rajasthan. But we play host to foreign delegates as well. It has now been documented that substantial numbers of flamingos have also been visiting Mumbai from Northern Africa, Afghanistan, Iran and Israel.

Lesser and greater flamingos don’t only differ in name and stature but also show slightly different migratory patterns.

Most lesser flamingos feed in and around Mumbai’s mudflats. The greater flamingos migrate to freshwater and estuarine habitats across Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. With scattered populations in a few other states.

Ongoing Research and Population Studies

If there is anything wildlife-related happening in Mumbai, the wonderful people at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) will always be the first to shed light on the situation and help educate us all.

In this case, the BNHS three years ago set up a field station in Airoli manned by 20-25 researchers and field staff to facilitate scientific studies in and around Thane Creek and Navi Mumbai. On three consecutive days each month — depending on the tide — they survey 46 kilometres of marshes and mangrove forests along the banks of Thane Creek, a coastal inlet off the city’s eastern waterfront separating it from mainland Maharashtra.

The presence of such a flamboyance of flamingos in Mumbai is a relatively recent development. Flamingos have been flocking to Mumbai for around three decades, and despite reports of smaller groups having visited earlier, the first large congregation (about 8,000 birds) was observed only in 1994. Their numbers have since grown, with hundreds of thousands now flocking Thane Creek.

Seeing how dynamic a population of migratory birds is, scientists have struggled for the better part of the last decade to accurately estimate the numbers of flamingos that come to Mumbai for the winter.

39 birds have been tagged with aluminium rings bearing unique ID numbers, to facilitate re-sighting in other countries. And researchers also plan to tag about 10 flamingos with radio collars by the end of this year.

Such efforts, however, have only allowed us to scratch the surface with regards to the behavioural patterns of these birds and their relationship with Thane creek and its ever-evolving ecology.

Plans and the Pandemic

The reason why these birds choose to enjoy warm winters in Mumbai might still remain a mystery, but the effects our city is having on them are alarmingly apparent.

When this author was younger, a fateful trip organised by his school’s nature club, took him to the banks of Sewri, overlooking the expansive mudflats dotted with hundreds of pink flamingos. This was probably my initiation into the cult of flamingo enthusiasts.

But if anyone wishes to experience the same thing today, they would find it terribly disappointing to know that flamingos have partially abandoned their Sewri habitat because of our relentless pursuit of infrastructural excellence.

The Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL) that will connect Sewri to Navi-Mumbai has, according to experts, temporarily disrupted the prime Mahul-Sewri mudflat ecosystem where our feathered friends fed.

This is not all. There are much more sinister and insidious factors that may prove damaging such as the worryingly large amounts of effluent and chemical waste that finds its way to Thane creek, its algae, crustaceans and other life-forms that ultimately are consumed by flamingos.

Last year, at the start of the pandemic, we witnessed a record number of flamingos in the Thane creek-Navi Mumbai region, thanks to reduced human interference, lesser pollution and minimal vehicular disturbance. We saw a hundred and fifty thousand greater and lesser flamingos decorate our creeks and wetlands for the longest time recorded in this city’s ornithological history.

The Way Forward

With the popularization of climate consciousness and eco-friendliness, there has been a resurgence of support for the conservation of our ecological treasures.

This cultural shift coupled with the rise of wildlife photography as a serious passion among people from all professions has led authorities to view the flamingo migration as a viable commercial venture.

In doing this, they have also ensured the preservation of one of our most delicate natural treasures.

If one wishes to see the flamingos, the best time to visit the Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Centre at Airoli is from December to March, where for a nominal fee one can enjoy a boat ride among the flamingos.

All Image Credits: Dr. Mahin Bhatt

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About the author

Dr Mahin Bhatt is a medical intern from Mumbai. He has a keen interest in clinical medicine, medical research and education, especially in the fields of Internal medicine and Haemato-oncology. He is the recipient of several prestigious awards, including research grants from ICMR, Oncology Scholarships at Tata Memorial Hospital and King’s College London, and has secured multiple academic prizes including a Gold Medal & First rank in all of Maharashtra in his Final Year MBBS. Community engagement and affecting social change at a grassroots level is one of his many passions. His hobbies include writing, wildlife photography and Hindustani classical music.

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