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Saturday, February 1, 2014

Birding the Extraordinary: Gulls, Terns, Skimmers, Lapwings, a Pratincole and the incredible Crab Plover

[India. Winter 2013]

In avian taxonomy, the suborder Lari includes the gulls, terns, skimmers, pratincoles and crab plover families; and, the Lari species to be showcased in this post are:
  • Crab Plover
  • Small Pratincole
  • Indian Skimmer
  • Greater Crested Tern
  • River Tern
  • Gull-billed Tern
  • Sandwich Tern
  • Slender-billed Gull
  • Pallas's Gull
  • River Lapwing
  • Red-wattled Lapwing
  • White-tailed Lapwing
  • Yellow-wattled Lapwing

The lapwings, while not placed in Lari, are in a sister suborder and will also be profiled here.

Crab Plover deservingly leads this post. This species is the only member of its family; it doesn't seem to quite fit any other because it reflects qualities from many different species; indeed the Crab Plover:
  • Has the profile of a plover
  • Has a bill like a tern
  • Sounds like a godwit
  • Looks like a Pied Avocet (black and white plumage with grey legs)
  • Nests like a kingfisher -- in burrows dug into sandy banks
  • Is a colonial breeder like the herons
For all these reasons, this is surely one species that warrants a prominent and proud place on any birder's life-list.

Crab Plover seen at Rozi Port, Jamnagar, Gujarat

If you haven't had enough unique factoids about the Crab Plover, here's another one: the Crab Plover offers a rare example of West to East migration -- all migrations into India are from North to South (in the Winter); however, the Crab Plover flies from the Middle East, over the Arabian Sea, to the West Coast of India.

The Amazing Crab Plover

After the Crab Plover, any other bird presented here will be a disappointment. Unless, the bird happens to be a Pratincole.

The Pratincoles are officially shorebirds but have the build and feeding habits of swallows. They are related to the Coursers and the Egyptian Plover. The term "Pratincole" was coined by Kramer from pratum (meadow) and incola (resident).

Small Pratincole

There are 8 species of Pratincoles in the world; found in Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia.

Small Pratincole seen at Morjim Beach, Goa

The Small Pratincole is the smallest in Asia. It has a short black bill with a red/orange base; the buffy bird is the color of warm sand with a white breast and a black trailing edge to the wings. Like all pratincoles, it looks like a stout swallow and feeds like one; no other shorebird does this!

Small Pratincoles snoozing, Arpora Salt Pans, Goa

Small Pratincole blending in with the sand

Another odd looking bird is the skimmer -- there are only 3 species of Skimmers found in the World: The Black Skimmer (Americas), the African Skimmer and the Indian Skimmer (found in Asia). Unfortunately, it is the Indian Skimmer whose population is seriously imperiled and it is classified one notch above "Endangered" with an estimated population of just 2,500 in India.

Indian Skimmers in flight

The skimmers were seen at National Chambal Sanctuary which is a reliable site for their observation. The dense fog that day made conditions challenging for photography, however, the characteristics of the skimmer are clear enough: a long bright orange bill with an oversized lower mandible; a tern-shaped body that is black excepting the neck and forehead.

Indian Skimmer

A fascinating species indeed and obviously reminiscent of our own Black Skimmer. Another bird that looks very familiar is this large tern:

This is the Great Crested Tern; closely related to our Royal Tern but with much darker wings and a yellow bill.

Great Crested Tern seen in the River Zuari, Goa

The next tern is the River Tern -- looking a lot like our Forster's:

River Tern seen at Ranthambhore National Park

This tern is classified as "Near Threatened" and is one of the few Sterna terns that exclusively favors freshwater.

The population of the River Tern in SE Asia has crashed but numbers in India appear to be stable.

Gull-billed Tern is a global tern found in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Australia and Asia. In India, it a common over-winterer.

Gull-billed Tern with Prey; seen at Marine National Park

In the US, Gull-billed Tern is uncommon but seen on both coasts. It is known to breed near San Diego.

Sandwich Tern, seen at River Zuari

The final tern is Sandwich Tern; another widespread tern that can be seen in the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia.

Over to the gulls, Slender-billed Gull ranges from the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and pockets in Africa and the Indian Ocean. While it is an uncommon gull, its population trends are positive.

Slender-billed Gull in flight

The next gull, Pallas's Gull, breeds in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Southern Ukraine and winters in India and other countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

Pallas's Gull seen at Marine National Park, Jamangar

Pallas's Gull landing at Morjim Beach, Goa

This is a massive gull -- only the Great Black Backed Gull and Glaucous Gull are larger. Among black-headed gulls, however, it is the largest.

Next the Lapwings: there are 25 species of lapwings on the planet. Their stronghold is in Asia and Africa with none occurring in North America and only 3 species in South America.

River Lapwing seen at National Chambal Sanctuary

The spectacular River Lapwing is a "Near Threatened" shorebird in decline; found in India and SE Asia, the global population is estimated to number no more than 20,000 adults. They face constant disturbance from humans and dogs on the riverbanks where they nest.

The River Lapwing's black face and crest, grey throat, white undersides and sandy uppersides serve as an excellent color combination against the gravel and sand of its preferred habitat.

The Red-wattled Lapwing is on the other end of the abundance spectrum -- you will not go very far without seeing one. It is famous for its "Did-you-do-it?" call that it raises in alarm. This lapwing ranges from the Middle East, through India to SE Asia.

Yellow-wattled Lapwing is an endemic to the subcontinent and estimated to number no more than 10,000 mature individuals. It is much scarcer and uncommonly seen. This observation was made on the road to Rozi Port, Jamnagar.

White-tailed Lapwing seen in Haryana

White-tailed Lapwing is a Central Asian shorebird that overwinters in India and East Africa.

This is a plain looking, medium-sized lapwing with a long, slender bill and bright yellow legs. It is never found far from shallow water.


This concludes an eclectic mix of species - from the unforgettable Crab Plover, the enigmatic Pratincole to the weird Skimmer -- each with a unique ecological profile; some thriving and classified as "Least Concern"; others, one step away from becoming officially "Endangered"; but, all uniquely interesting.

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