On the last day of our memorable sojourn at the Great Rann Of Kutch (thanks to the ever inspiring Mr Tiwari), we headed down to Modhva for some birding on the coast. Modhva is about six kilometers from the town of Mandvi. When we reached there, the town was unusually crowded as it was the day of Sankaranthi. People dressed in their finery thronged everywhere, many of them holding onto to very colorful kites. We decided to grab a bite of lunch before heading to Modhva. All the restaurants were jam packed. Finally we found one after waiting for a hour to get a seat. After a simple, tasty lunch we made our way to Modhva.
The beach at Modhva was completely deserted, except for an occasional fisherman returning from the sea with the day’s catch. The beach was spotless; the waves of the azure sea caressed the spotless beach gently with many birds foraging for the bounty that a fresh wave brought in. I was totally enraptured watching them silently at work.
As we made our way across the sands, Mr Tiwari told us about the behavioral patterns of many of the birds. We were truly entranced by his immeasurable knowledge of the avian world. Nearby we could see many greater flamingoes daintily making their way across the sands like trained ballerinas.
While I was lost in the magical scene in front of me, Mr Tiwari gently tapped my shoulder and with much excitement whispered, “Look at that bird which is walking among the oyster catchers doctor, it is the Indian Skimmer!”
And there it was... a single bird with a black and white plumage, black head cap, white face and collar and a distinctive long, thick, bright orange bill with a yellow tip. The colorful bill was quite unique in that the upper mandible was shorter than the lower one. Mr Tiwari told us that the bird is also known as the Indian Scissors-bill because of this unique configuration resembling a knife, which helps it to skim through the surface of the water, picking up aquatic prey. Flying a few inches above water, the skimmer drops its elongated lower mandible under the surface and moves over the water until its bill comes into contact with a fish, at which point it reflexively snaps shut! In doing so, they also need to be able to protect their retinas from bright sand and reflections off the water. To do this, skimmers’ pupils close vertically, forming thin slits that act as natural sunglasses. Skimmers are the only birds in the world with this kind of a mechanism.
The Indian Skimmer’s stronghold is the Chambal River and it was very strange to see a lonely one on the coast of Kutch. I wonder whether the Indian Skimmer might have arrived in Kutch, beyond their usual distribution range, looking for new habitats! Incidentally they have been reported in other far off places like Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu!
We were very lucky to have had a glimpse of this unusual bird. Even the bird man of India, Salim Ali was not so lucky as he didn’t spot one during his bird surveys in Kutch during the 40’s.
It is a sad story for the Indan Skimmers like many others in the wildlife scenario in India especially in recent times. They are declining in numbers and there are just around 2500 in India. The International Union For Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), has classified the bird as a “Vulnerable” species as its population is declining drastically, a direct consequence of widespread degradation and disturbance of lowland rivers, lakes and other wetlands.
When flamingo sanctuaries are sacrificed to provide way for the bullet train, what chance does this beautiful bird has to survive?!
In these times when human need and greed are so salient, it is the skimmer attached to the ATM machine which is in public consciousness rather than the perilous plight of this bird.