Mongolian Cuckoos Cross The Arabian Sea, Enchanting A Nation

Thanks to modern technology, we are beginning to unlock the secrets of our migratory birds.  And, although removing some of the mystery, gaining knowledge of these journeys in no way diminishes our awe at what these birds achieve in terms of endurance and navigation.  Every year, a new generation of birds following in their predecessors wing-flaps, inspires a new group of people. 

When it all began in June 2019, one of the aims of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project was to engage the public about migratory birds and the places they need.  Knowledge and experience are the first steps towards falling in love with nature and, as Baba Dioum, the Senegalese conservationist famously said: 

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”  

Thus, connecting more people to nature is crucial if conservationists are to build support for more, and better, protection of species and the wild places they need.  With biodiversity in crisis (according to The Living Planet Index, compiled by several leading wildlife science organisations, the populations of vertebrates have fallen, on average, by around 60% since 1970), there can be no more important task.

That is why the engagement inspired by ONON and BAYAN, two Common Cuckoos fitted with transmitters in Mongolia in June 2019, has been so up-lifting.  Over the last seven days these cuckoos, named by schoolchildren in northern Mongolia, have crossed the Arabian Sea from Africa (Kenya and Somalia, respectively).  As I write, ONON is in Bangladesh and BAYAN just 30km northwest of Kolkata in West Bengal, India.  That means that, since 29 April, ONON has flown >6,300km, and BAYAN >5,800km in just under seven days.

Tracks show data from 29 April to 6 May 2020. ONON in red and BAYAN in green.
As of late on 6 May 2020, ONON was in Rajshahi Division, Bangladesh and BAYAN just northwest of Kolkata in West Bengal, India.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, each step of the journey has been published in near real time, allowing followers to track the progress of the birds as they headed out over the open ocean towards India.  And, as they did so, interest in India soared…  With huge thanks to Parveen Kaswan of the Indian Forest Service, ONON and BAYAN now have thousands of new followers in India.  Parveen has more than 130,000 followers on Twitter and, when he sent out a message about ONON making landfall in India, interest exploded.  

Many people were stunned that a cuckoo could make such a flight and asked questions, which I did my best to answer!  See the end of this post for a selection.  Parveen’s tweet also inspired an article in the Bangla version of the Indian Times, under the title “Migrants from Kenya to Madhya Pradesh in a Week”.

One follower, Rajesh Ghotikar, who lives close to Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh, even went out to check on ONON’s location, taking precautions and respecting local rules on mask wearing and social distancing as he did so.

I’ve been so impressed by the interest and, most of all, by the warmth, politeness and friendly nature of the Indian people who have engaged with these birds.  It is moments like this that make the project so worthwhile.  Having never had the pleasure to visit the country, I am beginning to see why it is known as Incredible India.

Once again, huge thanks to the Mongolian Cuckoo Project team, especially Nyambayar Batbayar, Tuvshinjargal Erdenechimeg, Batmunkh Davaasuren, to Chris Hewson from BTO and to Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley.  And big thanks, too, to the Oriental Bird Club for generously sponsoring the project.

You can follow the exploits of ONON and BAYAN as they continue their journeys to Mongolia on Twitter (@birdingbeijing) or at this dedicated webpage.

Title image: map showing the positions of ONON (red) and BAYAN (green) over the last seven days. As of 7 May 2020, ONON is in Bangladesh and BAYAN is in West Bengal, India.

A selection of reactions from India on social media to ONON’s and BAYAN’s astonishing journeys:

Advertisements

Mongolian Cuckoos on the move

Back in early June, five cuckoos were fitted with tags at Khurkh Ringing Station in Mongolia. The first one fitted with a tag was an Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus optatus), believed to be the first ever individual of this species to be tracked. The other four were Common Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus). All five were given names by schoolchildren in the local community and in Ulan Bataar.

The next six weeks were fairly quiet for the four Common Cuckoos, all of which remained in the vicinity of Khurkh. However, the Oriental Cuckoo (named NOMAD) was clearly still on migration when he was caught in early June and continued north to breeding grounds on the central Siberian plane.

Now, into August, the cuckoos are already on the move. NOMAD, after only four weeks on his breeding grounds in central Siberia, has begun to move south and is currently close to the border of Irkutsk Province in Russia. Three of the four Common Cuckoos (NAMJAA, ONON and Captain KHURKH) have also begun their journey south with only BAYAN remaining in the vicinity of Khurkh. After being tagged within a few kilometres of each other, more than 2,800km now separates the five birds.

After being tagged within a few kilometres of each other in June, more than 2,800km separates NOMAD and NAMJAA in early August.

Over the next few weeks and months, following their progress is sure to be a roller-coaster ride. We expect the four Common Cuckoos to head into south Asia before crossing the Arabian Sea to Africa. However, the migration route and wintering grounds of NOMAD, the Oriental Cuckoo, will be new to science. From sight records we believe NOMAD’s most likely destination is southeast Asia or possibly Australia. However, nobody knows for sure, and one thing is for certain.. there will be some surprises along the way!

The schoolchildren in Mongolia are excited to follow ‘their’ birds and already the project has reached many who wouldn’t ordinarily take an interest in migratory birds.

Local schoolchildren gave names to the cuckoos and will be following them as they flee the cold of the Mongolian winter until their return the following spring.

You, too, can follow the progress of NOMAD, Captain KHURKH (will he boldly go where no cuckoo has gone before?), NAMJAA, ONON and BAYAN at the dedicated Mongolian Cuckoo Project page or via the BTO’s international projects page and on Twitter @BirdingBeijing or WeChat “BirdingBeijing”.

If you enjoy following these birds, please consider making a donation, no matter how small, to the JustGiving site towards the ongoing satellite fees. All contributions will go directly to BTO and 100% of the funds will go towards the cost of the satellite fees only.

Big thanks to the project partners, the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and to the Oriental Bird Club (OBC) and Mr Dick Newell for their financial support.

Thanks also to you, the reader, for following the Mongolian Cuckoos. Isn’t migration amazing?