Photo Story

Indian Skimmer: Fish-Loving River Hunter

Though they are successful fishers, there are less than 3,000 of the orange-billed birds left in the wild; and the banks of the Chambal River are the foremost breeding habitat for the species

Text by: Neha Sumitran

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.

The Indian skimmer is found in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Myanmar, but as Shaikh points out, numbers are low in most places. Nepal has perhaps 4-5 birds, Myanmar has a maximum of ten, and Pakistan maybe 20-50 birds. India and Bangladesh hold the largest populations, with over 90 per cent of the breeding population in India.  Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee  Cover photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

The Indian skimmer is found in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Myanmar, but as Shaikh points out, numbers are low in most places. Nepal has perhaps 4-5 birds, Myanmar has a maximum of ten, and Pakistan maybe 20-50 birds. India and Bangladesh hold the largest populations,
with over 90 per cent of the breeding population in India. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee
Cover photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

During the non-breeding season, the birds spend their days roosting, preening, feeding, and interacting with other birds in the Kakinada region of Andhra Pradesh, Jamnagar in Gujarat (pictured here), and along the River Mahanadi near Satkosia, Orissa. “Apart from these areas, skimmers visit many other places in small numbers,” says Shaikh. “There are 4-5 birds visiting the Mumbai wetlands, a pair or two in Pune and Amaravati, and some frequent visitors to the wetlands of Kota.” Photo: Neel Sureja

During the non-breeding season, the birds spend their days roosting, preening, feeding, and interacting with other birds in the Kakinada region of Andhra Pradesh, Jamnagar in Gujarat (pictured here), and along the River Mahanadi near Satkosia, Orissa. “Apart from these areas, skimmers visit many other places in small numbers,” says Shaikh. “There are 4-5 birds visiting the Mumbai wetlands, a pair or two in Pune and Amaravati, and some frequent visitors to the wetlands of Kota.” Photo: Neel Sureja

These birds’ needs and priorities change during the breeding season when they mate, nest,  and attend to their young. “Mainly, they nest on the sandbars that emerge between the river,” explains Sheikh. “It is the water surrounding the islands that give the nests some protection, not the nests themselves, which are small depressions in which they lay eggs.” Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

These birds’ needs and priorities change during the breeding season when they mate, nest, and attend to their young. “Mainly, they nest on the sandbars that emerge between the river,” explains Sheikh. “It is the water surrounding the islands that give the nests some protection, not the nests themselves, which are small depressions in which they lay eggs.” Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Shaikh says that the River Chambal is “an amazing habitat”, as is the Son Gharial Sanctuary, both in Madhya Pradesh. Good skimmer breeding populations also occupy parts of the River Mahanadi in Orissa and the middle Ganga that flows through Uttar Pradesh, near Prayagraj (Allahabad). “Then there are some scanty records from the Satpura Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, and some previous records from Pong Dam in the Kangra region of Himachal Pradesh.” Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Shaikh says that the River Chambal is “an amazing habitat”, as is the Son Gharial Sanctuary, both in Madhya Pradesh. Good skimmer breeding populations also occupy parts of the River Mahanadi in Orissa and the middle Ganga that flows through Uttar Pradesh, near Prayagraj (Allahabad). “Then there are some scanty records from the Satpura Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, and some previous records from Pong Dam in the Kangra region of Himachal Pradesh.” Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Adult Indian skimmers feed exclusively on fish, using their lower mandibles to skim the surface of the water, and snap up any fish they find. “They have a size preference due to the shape of their beak, and because they cannot dive, they only catch those fish that are closer to the surface,” explains Shaikh. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Adult Indian skimmers feed exclusively on fish, using their lower mandibles to skim the surface of the water, and snap up any fish they find. “They have a size preference due to the shape of their beak, and because they cannot dive, they only catch those fish that are closer to the surface,” explains Shaikh. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Skimmers are flocking birds that derive security from numbers during the breeding and non-breeding season. “When you observe them as a flock, you will notice that they have alert calls,” says Shaikh. “Whenever any predators, like crows, attack looking for eggs to snack on, the entire group responds by chasing the threat away. They can be quite aggressive, but their response is largely limited to chasing, rather than physically attacking the intruder.”
Photos: Neel Sureja

The birds arrive at their breeding location in the Chambal by December-January, and by February, you can see most of the pairs in courtship. “The males try to lure the females by performing a head-bobbing motion in front of them,” Shaikh says. “They will do this for 30-40 seconds, stop, hang around the female, and then do it again.” Once a pair has formed, the male will get the female a fish, feed her, and then mate with her. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

The birds arrive at their breeding location in the Chambal by December-January, and by February, you can see most of the pairs in courtship. “The males try to lure the females by performing a head-bobbing motion in front of them,” Shaikh says. “They will do this for 30-40 seconds, stop, hang around the female, and then do it again.” Once a pair has formed, the male will get the female a fish, feed her, and then mate with her. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

After the mating is complete, the male and female proceed with nesting activities such as laying eggs, incubating them when the clutch is complete, and defending the nests/eggs from predators. “They will both scrape the sand to check the temperature, humidity, and texture,” says Shaikh, and once they finalise a site, they dig a depression for the nest, and the female starts laying one egg a day after 2-3 days of mating. “A clutch generally has about 3-5 eggs, but these are not laid at one time. One egg is laid, and then a few days later, maybe one or two more. The chronology of hatching follows similarly.” Photo: KS Gopi Sundar

After the mating is complete, the male and female proceed with nesting activities such as laying eggs, incubating them when the clutch is complete, and defending the nests/eggs from predators. “They will both scrape the sand to check the temperature, humidity, and texture,” says Shaikh, and once they finalise a site, they dig a depression for the nest, and the female starts laying one egg a day after 2-3 days of mating. “A clutch generally has about 3-5 eggs, but these are not laid at one time. One egg is laid, and then a few days later, maybe one or two more. The chronology of hatching follows similarly.” Photo: KS Gopi Sundar

The eggs of the Indian skimmer take about 20-23 days to hatch, and their survival depends on the diligence of the parents. “When we think of incubation, we generally think of parents keeping the egg warm, but in the Chambal area, the sand gets really hot in the afternoons, so the parents wet their bellies in the water and sit on the eggs to keep them cool,” explains Shaikh. “They do this frequently, wetting their bellies, turning the eggs, and cooling them, and if they don’t, the odds are that the eggs will get baked in the sand.” Photo: Neel Sureja

The eggs of the Indian skimmer take about 20-23 days to hatch, and their survival depends on the diligence of the parents. “When we think of incubation, we generally think of parents keeping the egg warm, but in the Chambal area, the sand gets really hot in the afternoons, so the parents wet their bellies in the water and sit on the eggs to keep them cool,” explains Shaikh. “They do this frequently, wetting their bellies, turning the eggs, and cooling them, and if they don’t, the odds are that the eggs will get baked in the sand.” Photo: Neel Sureja

Chicks are beige-brown, similar to their habitat, “If any predator comes along, they lie flat on their bodies, so they are not easily recognised.” Once the entire clutch has hatched, the chicks move out of their nest and towards the edge of the sandbar, where the temperature is slightly cooler. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Chicks are beige-brown, similar to their habitat, “If any predator comes along, they lie flat on their bodies, so they are not easily recognised.” Once the entire clutch has hatched, the chicks move out of their nest and towards the edge of the sandbar, where the temperature is slightly cooler. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Breeding season is fraught with danger. In addition to predation from crows and free-ranging dogs, the birds must also contend with erratic weather such as sandstorms or heavy pre-monsoon showers. “If it rains heavily, even for one entire night, the sand islands get submerged in the water, and everything is lost,” says Sheikh. “There are a lot of variables that have to align for them to succeed.”  Photo: Neel Sureja Breeding season is fraught with danger. In addition to predation from crows and free-ranging dogs, the birds must also contend with erratic weather such as sandstorms or heavy pre-monsoon showers. “If it rains heavily, even for one entire night, the sand islands get submerged in the water, and everything is lost,” says Sheikh. “There are a lot of variables that have to align for them to succeed.”  Photo: Neel Sureja

Breeding season is fraught with danger. In addition to predation from crows and free-ranging dogs, the birds must also contend with erratic weather such as sandstorms or heavy pre-monsoon showers. “If it rains heavily, even for one entire night, the sand islands get submerged in the water, and everything is lost,” says Sheikh. “There are a lot of variables that have to align for them to succeed.” Photo: Neel Sureja

Assuming the young do survive, they begin to fly about a month after hatching, around May in the Chambal. Less than two months later, the parents and their young leave their breeding habitat. “Their departure depends on the monsoon,” explains Sheikh. “When the rains arrive, the river level rises, submerging the islands and sandbars, so the flocks leave for coastal habitats or other riverine habitats safe for them.” Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Assuming the young do survive, they begin to fly about a month after hatching, around May in the Chambal. Less than two months later, the parents and their young leave their breeding habitat. “Their departure depends on the monsoon,” explains Sheikh. “When the rains arrive, the river level rises, submerging the islands and sandbars, so the flocks leave for coastal habitats or other riverine habitats safe for them.” Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

In many ways, the future of the Indian skimmer is inextricably tied to the wellbeing of our riverine ecosystems. The more the habitat changes and becomes overfished or polluted with industrial waste, the more complicated life becomes for these birds. “All of our rivers are under high pressure due to dams, sand mining, and lift irrigation” (which requires the use of pumps), explains Shaikh. “Already the Chambal has two examples of lift irrigation, and there are dams upstream — all of these things affect the water levels and flow rate, and when the level of the river goes down, predators get easy access to the sandbars and islands where skimmers breed.” Photo: Neel Sureja

In many ways, the future of the Indian skimmer is inextricably tied to the wellbeing of our riverine ecosystems. The more the habitat changes and becomes overfished or polluted with industrial waste, the more complicated life becomes for these birds. “All of our rivers are under high pressure due to dams, sand mining, and lift irrigation” (which requires the use of pumps), explains Shaikh. “Already the Chambal has two examples of lift irrigation, and there are dams upstream — all of these things affect the water levels and flow rate, and when the level of the river goes down, predators get easy access to the sandbars and islands where skimmers breed.” Photo: Neel Sureja

Despite these odds, the skimmers return year after year to build nests, incubate their eggs, and rear young in the Chambal Valley. “I’ve been observing them for five years now, and watching them go through all this hardship without giving up has kept me going, too,” says Shaikh. Photo: Neel Sureja

Despite these odds, the skimmers return year after year to build nests, incubate their eggs, and rear young in the Chambal Valley. “I’ve been observing them for five years now, and watching them go through all this hardship without giving up has kept me going, too,” says Shaikh. Photo: Neel Sureja

Neha Sumitran
Neha Sumitran

spends her days gardening, cooking, and writing about food, biodiversity, and sustainable living in the Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu. She instagrams @nehasumitran.


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