My field work on the Chambal River is like an annual pilgrimage for me during summers. I started studying the Indian skimmer at Chambal in 2017 and have been monitoring the population and nesting success since.
The Indian skimmer (Rynchops albicollis)—recently classified as “endangered” on the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species worldwide—is one of the three species of skimmers found in the world. It gets its name from the way it feeds: while foraging for food, the bird flies low over water with its bill open, the lower bill skimming the water. BirdLife International 2020 estimated the Indian skimmer population at 2,450-2,900 mature individuals. It was formerly widely distributed across the Indian Subcontinent but it is presently confined only to India, Bangladesh and very few records in Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar. Indian Skimmer is resident in India and Pakistan but a large proportion of the population winters, principally in the Padma-Meghna delta in Bangladesh.
The Indian skimmer nests on temporary sandbars that emerge when rivers recede during summer, along with other riverine nesting birds like the Black-bellied Tern, Little Tern and River Tern. For four years, I have been monitoring the nesting distribution in the National Chambal Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, and have identified 33 nesting locations.
Our study revealed that factors contributing to low nesting success were predation from dogs, trampling of eggs and chicks by cattle, unpredictable weather events, disturbance from people, and illegal sand mining.
This year, I reached my field station in Morena in March. The pandemic was at the back of our minds, but we carried on. As we did every year, the team and I started preparation to monitor the nests of Indian skimmers and other riverine nesting birds.
In the second week of March, we conducted boat surveys to locate all the nesting colonies in 400km stretch of the sanctuary and we found 23 nesting locations. We finished our survey in a few days. This year we also planned a community-based nest-guardian programme to safeguard the vulnerable nesting colonies from threats.
We had tried to involve locals in protecting nesting colonies in 2019 and 2020 on a small scale and we knew that it could be an appropriate conservation intervention. In 2021, with funds from BirdLife International’s Preventing Extinction Programme, we began a Nest Guardian programme involving locals. We planned to identify three or four residents of the village closest to each of the four vulnerable nesting colonies that had more than 15 pairs of skimmers and other riverine birds and train them to monitor and protect the nest. Initially the plan was to organize an indoor training workshop and two on-field training sessions but keeping in mind all the covid-19 restrictions we had to modify this plan to a small group training on field at the respective nesting sites.
As news of the second covid-19 wave reached us, we thought it would be confined to urban areas like the first wave had been. But things got difficult. There were many logistical challenges for reaching the nesting sites as our study area stretches across 400km. Due to lack of awareness and denial of covid-19 in remote villages, social distancing and following all the precautions was very difficult. Whenever we visit nesting sites, its common for people to gather around us in curiosity. We ended up having to tell the locals about covid-19, explain how it spreads and make them understand why and how they could protect themselves. We found ourselves talking about the virus and disease prevention rather than riverine bird conservation.
Everyone thinks being out on the field during the lockdown is a boon, but that’s far from the truth. We have to pass through many villages to reach the nesting sites on the river. During these trips, there are many small interactions with locals—and yes, they do not wear masks—which basically made social distancing impossible. Double masking at 45-degree temperatures was a horrible experience in itself. It was tiring and at the end of the day, we all had headaches. Getting basic groceries was challenging many times in this region. All of this had a a cumulative impact on the actual field work and compromised it.
We had all the required permission and support from the respective forest departments to continue our field work on the river through the lockdown. But by the end of April, the situation got scary as most of the villagers and our trained nest guardians were down with fever and other covid-19 symptoms. Our field assistant and his family contracted the infection and we all had to stop field work and isolate ourselves for a week.
With no symptoms for a week, we decided to restart the field work. Every field visit after this required access planning so that we could cover many sites with minimum contact with people. We avoided staying in villages or rest houses and started camping on the riverbank. We had to carry all our groceries and cooking materials with us on every visit to avoid any contact with villagers. On the bright side, I now have some amazing memories of spending nights on the riverbank. I haven’t experienced so many camping nights on the Chambal before.
Apart from worrying about our own safety, we were even more worried about being a carrier of the virus and infecting the villagers. The residents of small hamlets on the river bank usually don’t even interact with those in neighbouring hamlets. What if we were the source of virus? How would they cope with the infection? All these thoughts were really disturbing.
Field work in remote areas is very isolating and every day requires some motivation. It’s usually our field subject, habitat, a lakeside, a mountain or a tree that keep us going but the covid situation brought uncertainty. Every day started with checking for fever, O2 levels and listing requirements of essentials. The poor connectivity sometimes made me feel good—I could escape the reality of the desperation of people looking for hospital beds and oxygen for some time, but you couldn’t escape it for long. The frequency of spotting cremations on the riverside increased every day. There was not a single day that our vehicle did not cross a funeral procession in the villages. We knew that this time this virus had reached the remotest hamlet across the river.
As skimmers are breeding migrants on the Chambal, we had initiated a ringing and flagging project in 2018. We capture birds (adults and chicks) in later stages of nesting and mark them with an aluminium ring and flag with a unique number. We have received re-sighting of these birds from Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Bangladesh and this shows the movement and dispersal of this breeding population. In 2020, we couldn’t conduct this activity due to the countrywide lockdown and this year after completing the nest success monitoring, we had planned the ringing activity. Unfortunately, we had to cancel this as our team members couldn’t travel. This has created a two-year gap in our ringing activity and we have missed out on the collection of important data about species movement and phenology.
In mid-May, we finally decided to wrap up our field work for the season and return home. Despite the anxiety and difficulties of those months, I believe spending time with the skimmers kept me motivated and sane during this insane time.
Parveen Shaikh is currently associated with the Bombay Natural History Society. This series is an initiative by the Nature Conservation Foundation. To know more, join The Flock, a free newsletter on birds and nature awareness.