Indian skimmers (Rynchops albicollis) are curious-looking birds, mainly because of their specialised beaks: bright orange-yellow in colour, with an upper mandible that is distinctly shorter than the lower. This unusual shape makes the waterbirds easy to identify and is ideally suited to their hunting style. “While foraging for food, skimmers fly low over water with their bill open and the lower mandible skimming through water,” explains Parveen Shaikh, a wildlife biologist who has been studying the species for five years. “Unlike other waterbirds that dive into the water, skimmers tear through the surface of the water with their lower beak to catch fish that are closer to the surface.”
The habitat needs of Indian skimmers varies according to their life cycle. During the non-breeding season, they mostly occupy mudflats and coastal wetlands. “But during the breeding season, they are very particular about using sandy, freshwater riverine landscapes,” explains Shaikh. “In both phases of their life, they are water-based species, as they require water to skim and catch fish.”
Watching them in action is a real joy, says Shaikh, who has spent countless hours observing the birds in the National Chambal Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, as part of her research. It’s not easy work, for summer temperatures in the region frequently cross 40 degrees Celsius. Skimmers, however, forage in the twilight hours, around dawn and dusk, when it’s cooler. “They spend only a few hours a day hunting, but they are amazing at it — very quick, very good hunting success, provided the area has enough fish.”
The National Chambal Sanctuary is famous for its population of “Critically Endangered” gharial and red-crowned roof turtle, and “Endangered” Ganges dolphin and Indian skimmer. According to BirdLife International and IUCN, there are between 2,450-2,900 mature Indian skimmer individuals left in the wild, and the banks of the Chambal are the foremost breeding habitat of the species.