Vijay Ittigi

After four long decades, the endangered Indian Skimmer was sighted on Christmas in Karnataka and this time, it was spotted amongst a colony of river terns in the Tungabhadra backwaters. A very rare sighting, a lone bird was sighted by me at 1.30 pm on a small sandbar almost hidden in the backwaters.

Also known as Indian Scissors-bill, this species ploughs along the surface of water to catch its prey, therefore, they have been named as skimmers. Unfortunately, their population is declining due to degradation of wetland and riverine habitats.

The backwaters of Tungabhadra Dam in Hagari Bommanahalli taluk of Ballari district is a haven for a variety of bird species. It is not surprising that the Indian Skimmer was seen in these waters. Maybe, the easy availability of food has attracted them. Further small islands and sand bars attract this species.

The last time it was recorded in 1979 near the Karwar sea shore.  Usually, these birds are found in islands or sandy spits of Chambal river in Rajasthan. It primarily occurs on larger, sandy, lowland rivers, around lakes and adjacent marshes as also in the non-breeding season, in estuaries and coasts. 

The Chambal river area is famous for the breeding colonies of Indian Skimmers. Widespread in winter, they have been observed in estuaries of west and eastern coast of India as far as Karwar, Pondicherry and Chennai. It breeds on large, exposed sand-bars and islands while colonies of mating pairs can be observed nesting on sandy islands or open sand banks.

Found in South Asia and in India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan, not only their numbers are declining but presently, they are distributed in patches. The population of Indian Skimmers has been declining over the years and today, there is an estimated population of 5000 in the country. 

According to researchers, the decline is due to rising human disturbance, exploitation and degradation of rivers and wetlands for fishing, transportation, domestic use, building of dams and barrages as also pollution from pesticides and industrial chemicals.

Due to destruction of its habitat – the sand spits as also the exploding human population have contributed to its decline. Due to this reason, the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species places this bird in the Vulnerable category. 

Suffering a continuing decline of more than 20 percent in the last decade, it has now a small global population size. Presently, scientific estimation of its population is going on in India. 

The Indian Skimmer is identified by its long and thick bill which is orange with a yellow tip. And these are thin and knife like. The lower mandible is longer than the upper one and this helps them in skimming the water surfaces for fishes and the bird literally feels its prey, and immediately snaps them. 

They are usually silent birds but sometimes scream in a highly nasal tone. Although having white underparts with pointed black wings, the head has a black cap while the feet are bright orange. With their population declining year after year, experts call for protection of river islands and sand bars especially in the Chambal River region.

Related tags :

Indian Skimmers     estuaries        sand bars

Chambal river    Tungabhadra backwaters