Srikanth Mannepuri’s birdwatching routine is governed by the tide. The birds he is usually looking for come to feed on the exposed mudflats when the tide ebbs. As the water comes in, they move to dry ground. Mannepuri follows.
Mannepuri, a wildlife conservationist, does this every day. But over the weekend of 19-20 December, he wasn’t on the lookout for the usual residents and fantastic diversity of winter visitors, such as the Black bellied terns, Bar tailed and Black tailed godwits and Eurasian oystercatchers, at the seaside town of Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh. Instead, he had his eyes peeled for a black and white bird with an unusually-shaped orange bill—the Indian skimmer.
The conservationist was part of the first coordinated attempt to count the total number of Indian skimmers (Rynchops albicollis) in India and Bangladesh. He counted 160 birds, a sizeable number considering there are believed to be just about 2,500-3,000 left in the wild.
When Mannepuri was birding for skimmers at the Kakinada port, one of the few places they can be found in India at this time of the year, Sayam Chowdhury was doing the same in the Bangladesh district of Cox’s Bazar. At the crack of dawn, he was walking the vast muddy intertidal mudflats of Sonadia and Moheshkhali islands, looking for the unmistakable low flight of skimmers over the brackish waters.
For two days, researchers from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and Bird Count India, which organised the Indian Skimmer Count, forest department personnel of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, and birdwatchers spread out from Gujarat and Goa to Bihar and Bangladesh, went out looking for skimmers. In India, over 100 birders scanned more than 50 spots for a bird that some say could well be the flagship species for the riverine system.
The results of this first count will be out on 20 January.
“It has been in our mind to involve citizens and do a simultaneous count of these birds,” says Parveen Shaikh, a researcher with BNHS who coordinated the event and has been studying skimmers on the Chambal river for several years. The pandemic gave Shaikh and her collaborators enough time to think about the count, design and implement it. “It was high time that we count these birds and get an estimate which would be closer to reality.”
The Indian skimmer is a distinctive bird with a lower bill that is longer than the upper one. This helps it plough the waters to catch fish, its main food. But it isn’t doing as well as its counterparts —the African skimmer, in that continent, and the Black skimmer, in the Americas. The bird’s existence is threatened by sand mining, the multitude of dams on rivers, overfishing and pollution, and even feral dogs.
The State Of India’s Birds report, a comprehensive assessment by ornithological research organisations, released last February, doesn’t give a sense of the skimmer’s numbers. “There isn’t enough data to show population trends for the species. We don’t know whether the birds are decreasing or increasing,” says Shaikh. According to the latest estimates of BirdLife International, the total number of Indian skimmers left through the bird’s range, from Pakistan to Vietnam, is 2,500-3,000; skimmers can no longer be seen in South-East Asia. The Switzerland-headquartered International Union for Conservation of Nature recently deemed this estimate small enough to elevate its status from vulnerable to endangered.
Chowdhury, who is studying shorebirds for his doctoral thesis at the University of Cambridge, UK, believes this count was essential “to better understand the skimmer’s current population status and then regularly keep a track of its population trend”. It’s declining rapidly throughout the subcontinent and we must do everything we can to improve its conservation status, he adds.
The researchers arrived at the 2,500-3,000 estimate by collating data from scientific projects, birdwatchers like Mannepuri, and eBird, an online database of bird sightings by scientists, researchers and amateur birdwatchers run by Cornell University’s ornithology lab. This estimate, concluded in December, was derived by counting the birds during their breeding season (March-May), when they gather in large numbers at their nesting colonies along the Chambal, Ganga and Mahanadi rivers. Although they are easier to count at this time, there’s always a possibility of some breakaway groups nesting in areas where there aren’t any researchers or birders. “In the breeding season, it is difficult for people to reach as it is hot, and the areas are remote and some are protected,” says Shaikh. “We also don’t want to encourage participants in the breeding season to disturb the birds.”
In the non-breeding season (July-February), Indian skimmers disperse to rivers, large lakes and other water bodies right up to the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, even going beyond the Gangetic delta in Bangladesh, where Chowdhury was looking for them. This is when they are closest to human habitation. Although Chowdhury didn’t see any skimmers, he did spot other globally threatened species like the Spoon-billed sandpiper, Great knot and Spotted greenshank.
Shaikh says, “This (two-day) count won’t give the exact number of skimmers at the first attempt but in future we will get a more accurate and clearer picture of what exactly is happening on the ground.” So, over 19-20 December, birdwatchers recorded their observations on the eBird app. Shaikh and her colleagues will be taking the most reliable number of observations and adding them to come up with the total number of skimmers. Repeating this exercise over the next three-five years will give a realistic number of the skimmer population in India and Bangladesh. To ensure this, the team plans to make the count an annual event.
Like Mannepuri and Chowdhury, Urmil Jhaveri, a nature photographer from the industrial town of Jamnagar, also went birding for the skimmers. Jhaveri counted about 200 of them on a freshwater lake, along with other winter visitors like flamingos, pelicans, Great-crested grebes, terns and Curlew sandpipers. The skimmers feed on the lake for a few hours and then roost for some time close to the beach where INS Valsura is located. They do this a couple of times a day. Jhaveri kept up with the skimmers’ routine over the two days.
“Being a local, I want to contribute something for this bird,” is Jhaveri’s simple reasoning. Apart from Jamnagar, groups of skimmers were also seen in the Gulf of Khambhat and the coastal town of Bhavnagar in Gujarat.
Having worked with skimmers on the Chambal, Shaikh wanted to survey a new area. She went to the Vikramshila Gangetic dolphin sanctuary in Bhagalpur, Bihar. Skimmers were last seen there in 2018 but she didn't see any while she was there. The birds use the Ganga, and rivers in Nepal, as a passageway to travel between the Indus in Pakistan and the mangroves of Bangladesh. /did she see any/
But India is now the only country they breed in, with river pollution, dams and sand mining making the Mekong, from Myanmar to Cambodia, too inhospitable. In the summer breeding season, then, the birds huddle on the Chambal and Mahanadi. “It is a bird that follows water and rainfall, and flooding of rivers contributes to their movement,” says Shaikh.
She notes that skimmers share the river waters with other threatened species like the gharial and freshwater terrapins. “Conserving the bird means you are conserving other species also dependent on the river,” she says. “It’s an iconic bird,” concurs Chowdhury, “and could well be the flagship species for the riverine system.”
Vrushal Pendharkar is a Mumbai-based independent environment journalist